Tell Me More: Bringing Puffins Back to Maine
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HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
If you were to visit a tiny remote island off the coast of Maine this summer, you might hear this [audio of an Atlantic Puffin call]. That’s not a creaky door. Believe it or not, you’re actually listening to an Atlantic puffin—a small seabird with an iconic, bright orange beak—once hunted to extinction in New England.
About 100 years ago, there were less than five puffins left in all of Maine. But now, thanks to the conservationists, the Atlantic puffin is making a comeback on a few islands. And they’re becoming a model for how people can help other species on the brink.
Journalist Derrick Jackson, an environmental writing fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been following the story for decades. He visited the Tufts campus this past spring to discuss the book he co-authored, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.
In this episode of Tell Me More, Jackson sits down with Tufts University’s Anna Miller to talk about what it takes to bring an animal back from local extinction, the sometimes sticky ethics of conservation, and what it’s like to be an environmental reporter in today’s changing climate.
Let’s listen in.
ANNA MILLER: So tell me about Atlantic puffins. Just generally, somebody that’s not familiar, what do they look like?
DERRICK JACKSON: They are about eight, nine inches tall, and they have an orange yellow beak, black and white body. John James Audubon once called them grotesque and comical. The bird evokes many emotions in many people, visually. Some people think it looks like a clown. Some people think it looks like a toucan. Some people think it looks like a penguin, which it’s not. I want to, at the very outset—any listener should understand that penguins are Southern hemisphere and puffins are Northern hemisphere.
One of the things that’s most fascinating to me about them is they can fly fairly long distances for migration, but their wing beat is ridiculously rapid. It’s almost like a big giant hummingbird. They don’t glide at all. They have to beat their wings at a super rapid rate to keep flying.
So they’re a sea bird. They’re called an alcid. They dive for fish. That’s their one and only diet. They’re adaptable to their terrain. So, for instance, in Maine, they nest in burrows underneath large boulders. However, up in Canada and over in Europe, they will nest along grassy steep slopes with just seeming minor indentations. They’re pretty adaptable as to how they can nest.
MILLER: You were saying that puffins really evoke a lot of different responses from people when they first see them. When you saw your first puffin, what went through your mind? What did they evoke for you?
JACKSON: For me? I’m trying to remember. The first time I ever saw one was in 1986 and I just thought they were so exotic. I had never seen any bird like that. But I’m a latecomer. I’m an adult onset bird person, so I’m the kind of person that was originally so stupid about birds that when I saw a great blue heron for the first time, I thought it had to be a super-endangered, prehistoric bird. Of course, now you go out on any river and you see tons of them.
But the puffins were captivating right at the start, like they are for many people, by their color and also by just knowing the story. This is a bird that was hunted in Maine down to its last two to four birds, depending on the historical record you read, by fishermen and coastal dwellers who were hungry for either the birds’ meat or their eggs.
There’s a common misconception that the hunting was for the millinery trade.
MILLER: That’s fancy hats?
JACKSON: Fancy hats, yeah. And that was the rage in the 1800s, but those feathers tended to have come from gulls, herons, and terns.
MILLER: Was there a huge uproar from Mainers that this bird that was very common off the coast of Maine, all of a sudden went the way of the dodo? Were people outraged?
JACKSON: In our research for the book, there was no documentation of any outrage. Like a lot of extinctions, I’m sure when they took off the last one, they didn’t realize they took the last one. So, as they got decimated, there was no “Puffin Society” to look out for them, except for those last two and what became the beginnings of the Audubon Society realized those were the last two to four birds and began an active program of paying a warden to wave a gun at poachers to preserve those last birds.
MILLER: I’m really curious what drew you to this story. You’ve made a career as a Boston Globe columnist, you’re a highly-acclaimed journalist—Pulitzer Prize finalist. You’ve covered the most important topics in our society from gun control to politics to education, racial inequality and then now you’re doing a lot of work reporting on puffins right now and also climate change. So, what shifted you to reporting about puffins?
JACKSON: Puffins are a really wonderful, feel-good story about what we can do to repair what we’ve destroyed. And as I’ve mentioned, puffins were down to two to four birds in Maine around 1902, 1903. And people got used to there not being any puffins. The historical memory of puffins was completely lost when Steve Kress came along as a young bird instructor and he happened to stumble upon a passage that said puffins existed on these islands in Maine.
So, he got it in his head to try to bring them back. And we can get into that later. Also for me, besides the puffin, it was also a great story on young adults who are committed and engaged in repairing the planet. Steve could not have done this project without the—now today, of nearly—so now the project is forty-six years old. He’s had hundreds, probably around 600, maybe, interns over the years who have helped preserve this bird. So, for me, it’s also a story of hope that of succeeding generations caring enough to continue the work.
And third, in more recent years, the puffins have taken on a completely different meaning than what Steve hoped for in 1973 when he started, which is now, and again we can get into this later on, is now the bird is literally, sorry for the cliché, a canary in the coal mine of climate change.
MILLER: So how did Project Puffin begin? You mentioned Steve Kress, and he was really the person that took it upon himself to bring the puffins back. How do you bring back a species from the dead?
JACKSON: So there’s two obvious ways you could think about bringing them back. Kidnapping some adults and bring them to the island and see if they’ll come back next year. That didn’t seem like a great idea, because the birds were known to have a high fidelity to where they were hatched and so he got this idea, well, what about chicks? And chick translocation is what it’s called. You can also call it chick kidnapping, whatever you want to call it. Up until this time, no sea bird had ever been restored on an island that humans had killed it off. And there was just something really extra hard about trying to do it on sea rather than land.
So, he applied to the Canadian government. Canada had lots of puffins and at first they said, “You’re crazy. This is stupid. No matter how far south you take them, they’re going to come back to Canada.” So, he had a mentor who became an intermediary and the intermediary was able to convince the Canadian government to give the kid a chance. So, it started in 1973 with six chicks, just to really see if they could hand raise and fledge, which means to grow to age where they go out to sea by themselves. He was able to raise five. And those five went out to sea and they were never seen again. But he proved that he could fledge them. They hand-fed them, put fish in front of them and the chicks ate it as if a puffin adult had given them the fish. So that was good. So, he got permission the next year for I think it was fifty-four. Those fifty-four fledged successfully and they were never seen again.
MILLER: Oh no.
JACKSON: But again, the Canadian government gave them a chance to seed the ocean with enough puffins with the hope that some would start to come back.
So, in 1975, he got a shot at 100. Fed them all. They went out to sea. No birds came back. 1976, 100 more. They all went out to sea, not a single puffin showed up. So, the Canadian government’s getting a little tired of this, so there was real possibilities that the project was going to get shut down. But in 1977 the birds that had been banded as chicks in 1975 started showing back up on the island. And that was great.
But the only way the project would be a true success is if they actually bred. And so, another 100 in 1978. Birds are coming back. No breeding. 1979, a hundred. Birds come back, no breeding. 1980, a hundred more go out, no breedings. So, again everybody’s saying, “I don’t know, kid. This is not happening.”
But then on July 4, 1981, for the first time, a puffin was seen flying back onto the island with a fish in its mouth. And the only reason a puffin flies onto an island with fish in its mouth is to feed a chick.
MILLER: Did they lose their minds with joy? I’m just thinking, to wait that long.
JACKSON: Well, the woman who was helping Steve that day, on July 4th, she got on the CB or Coast Guard radio and was telling the woman on the Coast Guard base, “We’ve got puffins! We’ve got puffins!” So yes, there was a lot of excitement that way.
The return of the birds did get some publicity. The New York Times, Newsweek, I think Animal Kingdom. It was quite a thing for people to see this project that really was successful.
MILLER: And you were a news journalist, and still are, were you a part of the news teams descending on the island and reporting about this?
JACKSON: Well, I went out in 1986, so that’s five years after the first breeding puffins started. But even at that time, at five years out from the first breeding puffins, they were still under—only numbered in the teens for breeding pairs. So, when I went on to the island it was very cool, but it was a puffin over there… a couple puffins over there. And then spotting them every ten minutes. So, it wasn’t any particular congregation, but for me to see even just one puffin was really, really cool.
That experience stays in your mind. So fast forward to around 2005, I just said, “Let me just call Steve up” and I said “Do you remember—I don’t know if you remember me, but I was this black reporter from Newsday and came out to do a puffin story.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I remember you.” And so he invited me to come back out and did a story for the Globe on where the project had progressed and that became an annual series in the Globe of puffins and then sometimes I would combine it with other birds iconic to New England. The state of the loon, the common loon and the recovery of the bald eagle. And those people really liked those updates.
In fact, I got emails from people who hated my political commentary, folks, shall we say, on the right-wing side of things. They said, “I hate what you write about, race and welfare and gun control, but stick with puffins, man. You’re good. Stick with puffins.” [laughter] So there’s something about this story that appeals to a huge swath of people.
The sort of, you know, less glamorous side of the project is that when he started the project, these islands were overrun by gulls, mostly herring gulls and great black-backed gulls. And that’s a result of humans having destroyed the ecosystem back in the 1880s and 1890s. Humans so upset the balance with the removal of puffins and probably other birds that gulls, who are among the most opportunistic of all birds, just said this is going to be our Manhattan. So, in order to even get the project started, U.S. Fish and Wildlife had to go out and poison many of the gulls and to get it down to a number that you could think about reestablishing other birds.
He realized that terns provide protective cover for puffins with their screeching. So, they developed taped tern calls and they made tern decoys along with puffin decoys. Steve and other researchers thought maybe if we can fool the birds to think there’s more of them than they actually are, they would be attracted to these islands. Puffins were known to be socially attracted to each other, hanging out in big groups in Europe, in Iceland, Canada, Scotland. So, you figure if you can make one puffin look like two, and two puffins look like four, and so forth, they might say this is a nice place for us, and really settle in.
I’ve seen the puffins nip their bills at mirrors, and try to go up to an adult decoy with fish. This stuff actually works.
MILLER: How many puffins are there today?
JACKSON: From a state that was down to its last two to four birds in the early 1900s, there are now 1,300 pair on several islands. Roseate terns, Arctic terns, black terns have come in from the Midwest for some crazy reason. One time I was in my bird blind and a northern gannett, a really elegant, gigantic bird, huge wingspan with beautiful blue eyes, landed right in front of my bird blind. You know, it’s kind of like—he started with one bird but he ended up with a menagerie.
MILLER: Do you ever find that there was an uncomfortable reality to conservation where sometimes you have to kill one species in order to help another? Did people ever struggle with that?
JACKSON: There’s a chapter in our book that talks about how several of the interns were uncomfortable at first with killing gulls to maintain the puffin population. Although, when you see what a gull can do, they can eat duck chicks like popcorn. It’s not just gulls. Other beautiful creatures get on to the islands periodically that have to be lethally dealt with such as otters, mink.
I think the hard part, Anna, about it is what Project Puffin and the struggle that the interns go through to get from a point of discomfort to a point of being able to pull the trigger to kill a gull or an otter or a mink is that we have to always remember, these islands, whatever condition they were in prior to Europeans coming and making massive commercial use out of the Gulf of Maine with fishing operations, we have to remember that we completely turned the ecosystem upside down.
The most underappreciated or unappreciated part of conservation is probably a lot of people who only think about this on the surface, they think that there’s a balance of nature that if we just restore that balance, that it will remain balanced. What Steve discovered, and certainly what I realized with the research helping with the book, is that we humans have been so efficient at doing what we think we need to do that we have permanently altered whatever was there before, and we’re only really seeing, in lots of ways, we’re only really seeing postage stamps of the richness that was there before.
MILLER: In some ways, we’re kind of playing God here, making sure we choose who lives and who dies. Is that an uncomfortable dilemma that a lot of these conservationists have to juggle?
JACKSON: The great Canadian marine biologist, Tony Diamond, who’s one of Steve Kress’ longest-standing colleagues once—he told me, oh my gosh, he told me this thirty-three years ago, he said that “It’s time somebody played God, because we played the devil for so long.” And one of Steve’s mentors said, similarly, that “if we don’t play God, the gulls will.”
Think of it like national parks. Most conservationists realize that national parks themselves are postage stamps of what was there before and the animals—you pick the national park, they’re undergoing constant management.
I was in Yosemite one year and scores of people in a parking lot were captivated by a bear in a tree, eating apples. But the ranger came by and said “Everybody out of here. We’ve got to get this bear back in the woods, because if it gets habituated to you all, then we’re going to have to destroy it.” I think the good thing is that when people have time, they’re drawn to the animal kingdom and there’s an instinct to want to care. But we also really got to be mindful of all the activities that endanger them. Everything from landfills that jack up gull populations to wanting to go back to a 1950s newsreel, people out of their cars in Yosemite and Sequoia feeding the bears. We can’t do that.
MILLER: What do you think the future of puffins? Is it hopeful? Is it pessimistic?
JACKSON: Up until three or four years ago, on the international Red List of birds, they were a bird of “least concern,” which means there’s millions of them, we don’t have to worry about them, they’re in good shape. They’re now endangered, and this is primarily because of what’s happening in Europe. Their reproduction has crashed over the last several years.
Right now, there’s still a lot of hope in the sense that puffins have—certainly the puffins Steve Kress has dealt with have been amazingly resilient up into this point.
The waters of the Gulf of Maine, where his project is, those waters are warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and that has changed the kind of fish—many species of fish are moving north. Their core populations are moving northward at speeds never seen before. As brief examples, lobsters have moved their core population, has moved 155 miles north since the 1970s.
Species like herring are going deeper. Herring used to be the primo numero uno fish of puffins in the 1970s. Herring are now almost completely gone from the puffin diet. Fortunately, puffins are using other fish that have rebounded with federal fish management—red fish, hake, haddock. So that’s both the hope, that the puffins are resilient, and however that raises a lot of questions about as fish keep moving more northward. What are the puffins going to catch, and will it be the kind of fish that the chicks can eat?
MILLER: You did a lot of field reporting for this story. What was it like being on this very remote island, working in a seabird colony? Was it really loud? Was it messy?
JACKSON: Oh yes, all of the above. To me, a summer is not complete unless I’m deafened by the terns and gulls, screaming and squawking when new people come onto the island. It’s just incessant, nonstop.
The only time it ever stops is when a bald eagle flies over, and it creates this thing called a dread. A dread is this really crazy thing. It’s where thousands of birds, all at once, no matter what the species is, thousands of birds go absolutely silent. Because they know that a predator is hovering above them. Then when they think the dread is over, then the crescendo rises up again. It’s just one of those magical things in nature, that you really have to experience it.
It’s kind of smelly, a lot of guano. It’s kind of funny, you get used to that. To be on those islands is heaven to me. You’re surrounded by the sea. You’re reminded so much about creatures who don’t need or want your presence in an ideal sense. They completely function their independent lives with not a world of care about you. Even though they don’t know it, but they need us now to preserve them.
MILLER: Are there any puffins that you specifically got attached to?
JACKSON: Yeah. There was a puffin, Y33. And Y33 was the oldest one in the United States and Canada, and it lived to thirty-five. That was when it was last seen, back around 2013 or 2014. There was a Scottish puffin that was a couple years ahead of it, and we kept saying we don’t want to wish any ill will on that Scottish puffin, but it sure would be nice to get the record. But Y33 disappeared after its thirty-fifth hatch day, and Scotland still has the record. [laughter]
MILLER: Thank you so much, Derrick Jackson. We really appreciate you speaking with us all about your work, and Atlantic puffins, but also environmental reporting. It’s been wonderful to read your work.
JACKSON: My pleasure, Anna. Thank you so much.
HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Want to see photographs of the puffins on Eastern Egg Rock? Visit our website, tellmemore.tufts.edu. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell Me More is produced by Steffan Hacker, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Katie McLeod Strollo. This episode was written and produced by Anna Miller. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Thanks to the Tufts Environmental Studies Program, Tisch College, the Department of Biology, and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, who sponsored the lecture. And a special thanks to Bob McGuire at the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (ML Audio 216892), who provided the field audio of the puffin in Maine.
Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
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