MAINE — On July 3, a baby puffin named Joy hatched in a burrow off the coast of Maine. Her parents, Phoebe and Finn, return to Seal Island every year and have a single offspring.
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The island is home to about 500 pairs of nesting puffins, all thanks to the dedication of Cornell University Instructor Steve Kress.
He started Project Puffin 42 years ago to restore the Atlantic Puffin to nesting islands off the coast of Maine after the birds were nearly killed off in the area during the 1800s for food and feathers.
When he started the project in 1973, there were only about 70 mating pairs in the area and all of them were on one island.
“It had never been done before. There were no blueprints. There were no methods available,” Kress said.
He said he and his team of biologists decided to use two methods to repopulate the puffins in the area:
— The first method involved translocating 1,000 puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock from 1973 to 1986 and 1,000 more chicks to Seal Island from 1984 to 1989.
— The second method involved the use of audio social attraction — using the sound of bird colonies to attract and keep birds on the islands.
“It was certainly trial and error. It was a huge learning curve,” Kress said. “There were critics of the project. Some thought it was just impossible to do and others thought it wasn’t worth doing.”
As of the end of last summer, there were about 1,000 mating pairs of puffins on five islands off the coast of Maine.
Just as importantly, Kress said, is that other scientists have learned how to use the methods to save or relocate other seabirds. The methods used for Project Puffin are used in at least 14 countries helping 49 species of seabirds.
“Now it’s like a standard process,” he said. “These methods are being used around the world to restore rare and endangered species of seabirds.”
For instance, Kress said a team of scientists in Japan is working to relocate endangered short-tailed albatrosses from their primary home on a small island with an active volcano on it.
The methods are also being used to save seabird populations from what Kress says is their biggest threat — global warming.
He said rapid climate change is causing the birds’ food sources to move north toward colder water and higher water levels are more prone to wipe out bird nests.
“These are all saddle effects we’re seeing on the coast, ” he said.
Project Puffin’s other goals are to inform people about conservation efforts for seabirds.
Baby puffin Joy, for instance, can be seen on a live feed coming from her nest.
“I’m a great believer that all this conservation work need to have acceptance. People have to know why this is important and they have to know how they can help,” Kress said.
In April, Kress released a book about Project Puffin’s journey over the past 42 years.
The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock chronicles the project’s history, but Kress said it’s as much an adventure story as it is a biology story.
He said it covers capsized boats, near drownings and other dangerous incidents scientists have faced while trying to save the seabirds.
He said he hopes the story will inspire people to become active in wildlife conservation or inspired to start their own projects on behalf of animals.
“It takes dedication. These kinds of projects take time and persistence and patience and believing in the outcome. And there will be critics along the way when new projects start,” he said.