The Atlantic Puffin is a seabird known to many and was one suggestion for the 'Vote for Britain's National Bird' campaign in 2016. However this little bird is facing hard times with the future looking less than secure. These comedy little birds with their bright bills and clown like eyes have a character all of their own and are loved by many, along with other birds like the kingfisher and the robin.
However, this small bird has joined the International Union For Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species along with eight other UK species. This means that they are as endangered as the African elephant.
The UK is host to about 10% of the world population with them being found in large numbers on Shetland and Orkney, Farne Islands, Bempton Cliffs and Skomer Island where I was lucky enough to spend time with them.
It is estimated by the RSPB that there are about 580,800 breeding pairs in the UK, however larger numbers are found in Norway and Iceland where numbers are also declining. The decline in numbers is mainly in juvenile birds who are not going on to breed successfully.
Puffins lay just one egg each year and so anything happening to this solitary chick means the loss of the pairs only chick for the year. The puffin nests in an underground burrow which leaves them vulnerable to predation from rats and mink. On Skomer Island, strict landing guidance prevents the introduction of these predators keeping the colony safe.
Puffins eat a large number of small fish each day, flying into their burrows stuffed with sand eels, herring and sprats. It is hard to believe that despite their obvious success at fishing there isn't always enough food for all. This is mainly due to over-fishing in the seas surrounding their homes.
A reduction in food means that many of the chicks will starve before they fledge and never emerge from their burrows. There is a daily battle on Skomer between the gulls and the puffins. The returning puffins are mobbed by the gulls, dropping their catch which is one less meal for their chick and partner. Whilst this isn't a massive problem for individual puffins over time the hijacked meals add up to a substantial loss for the colony.
The other cause for concern for puffin colonies is the increase in offshore pollution. Outside of the breeding season the puffins are found in large rafts, floating together on the open ocean. They have adapted their feathers to be waterproof which allows survival in the frigid winter oceans. However, pollution will prevent their feathers from providing the required protection and many will freeze in the winter seas.
One Less Puffling
On Skomer the loss of a chick was witnessed first hand. The parent brought the dead puffling out of the burrow and spent a long while prodding the chick, trying to work out had happened before the gulls saw the chance for an easy meal and swooped in and grabbed it. This was the only chance for a new life from this breeding pair this year and for whatever reason one less puffin would make it to the open ocean for the winter.
If this small bird is to survive, major changes need to take place to ensure that their habitat and their food source is available, safe and suitable into the future.