The National Audubon Society started Project Puffin in 1973 in an effort to learn how to restore puffins to historic nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine. Today, Project Puffin refers to the active seabird restoration programs for puffins and other Maine seabirds as well as many public education programs. In Maine and beyond, Project Puffin is also known as Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program as it actively works to share restoration methods to benefit rare and endangered seabirds worldwide while building a culture of seabird conservation and appreciation. Project Puffin has a year round staff of seven which increases to about fifty during the seabird breeding season in spring and summer, including interns and volunteers. Project Puffin is based in Ithaca, NY at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary, Bremen on mid-coast Maine. It is part of the Science Division of the National Audubon Society.
Why Project Puffin Was Started
When Project Puffin began, all the puffins nesting along the Maine coast were on just two islands- Matinicus Rock and Machias Seal Island on the U.S./Canadian border. The two surviving colonies were vulnerable to a disaster such as an oil spill, or accidental invasion of predators such as rats or mink.
Although puffins are not an endangered species (millions still nest in Newfoundland, Iceland, and Britain), they are rare in Maine and are listed by the state as a threatened species. Despite their large numbers in Europe, recent declines in populations and nesting success have led to them receiving world status of Threatened and Endangered in Europe by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Eastern Egg Rock
Project Puffin began with an attempt to restore puffins to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point. Puffins had nested there until about 1885 when hunters took the last survivors of this once-flourishing colony. The restoration of puffins to Eastern Egg Rock is based on the fact that young puffins usually return to breed on the same island where they hatched.
Young puffins from Great Island, Newfoundland (where about 160,000 pairs nest) were transplanted to Eastern Egg Rock when they were about 10 - 14 days old. The young puffins were then reared in artificial sod burrows for about one month. Audubon biologists placed handfuls of vitamin-fortified fish in their burrows each day and, in effect, took the place of parent puffins. As the young puffins reached fledging age (the time when birds leave the nest), they received leg bands so they could be recognized in the future. After spending their first 2-3 years at sea, it was hoped they would return to establish a new colony at Eastern Egg Rock rather than Great Island. Because this was the first time an attempt had been made to restore a puffin colony, the outcome was unknown.
Between 1973 and 1986, 954 young puffins were transplanted from Great Island to Eastern Egg Rock and 914 of these successfully fledged. Transplanted puffins began returning to Eastern Egg Rock in June of 1977. To lure them ashore and encourage the birds to explore nesting habitat, wooden puffin decoys were positioned atop large boulders. These were readily visited by the curious young birds, which often sat with the models and pecked at their stiff wooden beaks. The number of young puffins slowly increased. In 1981, four pairs nested beneath boulders at the edge of the island. The colony has since increased to 150 pairs. Read Egg Rock Update for the latest news. You may also be interested in this informative video: Dr. Stephen Kress: Puffins, Little Fish and Climate Change (from the Lincoln Theater presentation in Damariscotta Maine, August 2018)
Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge
In 1984, National Audubon Society and the Canadian Wildlife Service began a similar puffin restoration project at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in outer Penobscot Bay (6 miles east of Matinicus Rock). Hundreds of puffins once nested at this large mid-coast Maine puffin colony, but hunting for food and feathers decimated this colony by 1887. Between 1984 and 1989, 950 puffin chicks were transplanted from Great Island Newfoundland, to Seal Island and 912 of these fledged. Seven pairs returned to nest in 1992 - eight years after the project began. The colony has rapidly increased to about 500 pairs. The restoration of puffins to Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge are hopeful projects that demonstrate how people can restore wildlife populations rather than just deplete them.
Now, more than 1,000 pairs of puffins nest on five Maine islands (Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island NWR, Large Duck Island and Petit Manan Island NWR). About 5,000 additional pairs nest on Machias Seal Island.
Methods Benefit Other Seabirds
National Audubon biologists have also developed techniques for managing terns and storm-petrels, species that also have declined in recent years. Techniques such as gull and vegetation control, use of tern decoys, and tape recordings of courtship sounds broadcast from the islands are helping to restore colonies. These efforts are so successful, that in recent years, Eastern Egg Rock and Stratton Island (Saco Bay, Maine) have become Maine’s largest colonies of the endangered Roseate Tern. These techniques have also helped to protect the terns at Matinicus Rock and establish new tern colonies at Seal Island, Stratton Island (Saco Bay), Pond Island National Wildlife Refuge (Kennebec River), and Jenny Island and Outer Green Islands (Casco Bay). These colonies provide nesting habitat to 100% of Maine’s Roseate Terns, about 80% of its Common Terns, 65% of its Arctic Terns and about half of its Least Terns.
These methods are also proving useful for helping endangered seabirds in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador (Dark-rumped Petrels), Japan (Short-tailed Albatross) and Chinese Crested Tern (China). Worldwide, at least 42 seabird species in 14 countries have benefited from seabird restoration techniques developed by Project Puffin.
Restoration of seabird colonies takes years of persistent work, since so many factors influencing success are beyond the control of researchers. For example, young puffins must find ample food and clean waters while avoiding predators. Unfortunately, climate change, oil spills, depleted fish stocks from commercial fishing, entanglement in fishing nets and predation by gulls decrease the number of surviving birds. Considering these odds, the establishment of new seabird colonies and protection of existing, productive colonies through placement of seasonal seabird stewards on the most important sites is especially important.
Atlantic Puffins and other Maine seabirds suffered from intense hunting for their eggs, meat and feathers for nearly 300 years following colonial days. By the mid 1800's, their numbers already greatly reduced, fashion trends began to dictate decorative feathers for hats and other fine ladies fashions. Maine seabird populations were nearly dealt a final coupe de grace by major campaigns to collect feathers for the Boston and New York millinery trade. In 1900, at their lowest ebb, eiders, cormorants, gannets, murres, and Great Black-back Gulls were completely eliminated from the Maine coast.
Public outrage over the declining bird numbers had begun building in the late 1800's and eventually led to the formation of Audubon societies which worked for the passage of protective laws. Maine passed its first bird protection law in 1901, and a federal treaty between the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) gave further protection in 1916. These laws, combined with a general decline in the human population on islands and protection afforded by Audubon wardens, gave some seabirds a chance to reclaim former offshore nesting habitats.
Common Eiders, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants expanded their range back to many of their historic nesting spots during the 1930-1960 period and are now well established on many Maine islands. By the early 1970's, some species such as Atlantic Puffins, Leach's Storm-petrel, Northern Gannet, and Common Murres had yet to recover from the havoc of the 1800's. Arctic, Common, and Roseate Terns declined during the recovery of gulls over the past fifty years as Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls crowded them off of most of their nesting islands.
Atlantic Puffins once nested on at least six islands from mid-coast Maine to the Canadian border. They prefer remote, offshore islands, especially those free from mammal predators and where there are great jumbles of granite boulders under which they can nest. Puffins lay only one egg each year and don't usually breed until they are five years old. This late breeding age and low productivity level, coupled with restricted nesting habitat make them very vulnerable to hunting and human disturbance.
By 1902, only one pair remained at Matinicus Rock (22 miles offshore from Rockland). Although the number nesting at Matinicus Rock had increased to about 100 pairs by the early 1970's when Project Puffin began, puffins had not reclaimed any other of their former Maine nesting islands.
Because the future for seabird depends on people caring about them and supporting responsible ocean conservation, Project Puffin operates many outreach programs to share conservation messages. These include:
- Hog Island Audubon Camp (resident six-day programs for adults, teens and families) about birding and coastal natural history in Bremen, ME;
- Project Puffin Visitor Center (exhibits, theater, art gallery and gift shop in Rockland, ME);
- Puffin watching tours to Eastern Egg Rock;
- Seabird Adventures- classroom visits by a Project Puffin naturalist for Maine children.