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Getting a look at the elusive Atlantic puffin

June issue National Geographic
Courtesy, National Geographic

Ah, but spring. It’s like carnival time for puffins. Breeding is the only excuse for these seabirds to go on land. They become intensely social, courting, mating, tussling. Assemblages vary from a few hundred pairs in Maine to tens of thousands in Iceland. The British Isles, scene of Danny Green’s photographs, attract about 10 percent of an estimated 20 million Atlantic puffins (nobody really knows), with Iceland claiming almost half.

(From "Puffin Therapy," June issue of National Geographic Magazine)

It's not easy to see an Atlantic puffin. Not that Fratercula arctica is shy or hard to identify. In fact, from April through August, mating season, the Atlantic puffin is conspicuously only like himself.

This strong-featured bird prepares for courtship by deepening the colors of his already extravagant bill. For good measure, his face turns from gray to white, the better to contrast with his black cap and collar. Those markings resemble a monk's cowl and thus may be the source of his Latin name, Fratercula, "little monk." Because of his (and her -- the female is similar to the male) bright colors and strong markings, the puffin is commonly referred to as the "clown of the sea" or "sea parrot." But the Latin name is more accurate. The bird is in indeed monkish, preferring to nest on uninhabited craggy shores. (Hoping to find seals, this writer was once privileged to come upon Atlantic puffins nesting on a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides.)

After the breeding season, Atlantic puffins migrate down to our latitude and even further south. But since they're pelagic, they don't come anywhere near us. They spend the entire winter swimming and fishing in the open ocean.

Fratercula arctica may keep his distance from human habitations, but he can't quite avoid our habits. The number of Atlantic puffins has declined, probably because of scarce food resources. They primarily feed on cold water fish and as we know, in recent decades industrial scale fishing has greatly reduced the fish population. With climate change and warming ocean temperatures, the puffins' food supply has been further jeopardized.

Puffins have had to deal with the harsh reality created by our species before. Most of the Atlantic puffins in Maine are descendants of nestlings resettled there through Project Puffin. Although puffins were once plentiful in Maine, by the end of the 19th century, hunters had managed to kill off most of them. Project Puffin, begun in 1973 by the Audubon Society, has successfully nurtured colonies of the birds and now about a 1,000 pairs nest in Maine.

Atlantic puffins may be elusive, but evidently they are good for us. To find out more, read Tim O'Neill's "Puffin Therapy" and check out the wonderful photographs by Danny Green at the link above.

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