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. At that time, literally all the puffin eggs in Maine were in two baskets - Matinicus Rock and Machias Seal Island. Although puffins are not an endangered species (they are abundant in Newfoundland, Iceland, and Britain), they are rare in Maine. The two surviving colonies were very vulnerable to a disaster such as an oil spill, or accidental establishment of predators such as rats or mink.
The Project 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 101 pairs as of 2008. Read Egg Rock Update for the latest news.
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 336 pairs by 2006.
As of 2013, there are now about 1,000 pairs of puffins nesting on five Maine islands.
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 has become the largest Maine colony 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), Jenny Island (Casco Bay), and Pond Island (Kennebec River), and Outer Green Island. These methods are also proving useful for helping endangered seabirds in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador (Dark-rumped Petrels), California (Common Murres) and Japan (Short-tailed Albatross). At least 40 seabird species in 12 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, oil spills, depleted fish stocks, entanglement in fishing nets and predation by gulls decrease the number of surviving birds. Considering these odds, the establishment of new puffin and tern colonies through active management is especially exciting.
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 on mid-coast Maine.
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, puffins had not reclaimed any other of their former Maine nesting islands.