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Maine’s Puffin Population is on the Mend

Atlantic Puffins

This summer, I wrote about the boom experienced by the puffin colony on the island of Skellig Michael in Ireland. Conservation efforts targeting Skellig Michael seem to have been the cause of this boom, which was an exciting event despite the fact that it was far from enough to put a stop to the general decline that Ireland’s puffin population is currently experiencing.

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Puffins are sensitive to a number of threats. Climate change, changes in fish stocks, and habitat degradation can all be devastating to puffin numbers, especially thanks to the fact that puffins only produce one chick each year. Like many other vulnerable seabirds, they nest in large colonies and the well-being of these nesting colonies is vital to ensuring the future of the species.

Fortunately, conservation efforts targeting puffins have seen some measure of success. As is the case with the Skellig Michael colony, protections designed to give puffins the opportunity to breed safely tend to be rewarded by population growth. This is what is currently happening in Maine.

The puffins that reside along the Atlantic coast of Maine had a devastating year in 2021. Due to falling herring stocks, Maine’s puffins experienced widespread breeding failure in 2021 and the reproduction rate dropped sharply. For a species that breeds so slowly, this had the potential to set back conservation efforts by many years. Fortunately, a good year for a small fish called the Sand Lance has meant a great year for Maine’s Atlantic Puffins.

Maine’s puffin colony holds special significance within the world of conservation. It is the only breeding population of Atlantic Puffins in the entirety of the United States. The success of this colony is tantamount to preventing the extinction of one of America’s most unique and charming birds.

At one point, the risk of extinction was almost insurmountable. In the early 1900s were hunted to near-extinction for their feathers and meat. The Maine puffin colony was established to address the imminent loss of America’s only puffins. It is monitored by the Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program and has been for the last 50 years. When the program, dubbed “Project Puffin,” began, the colony’s breeding pairs were in the double digits. Now, after a banner year the puffins number roughly 3,000 individuals. But their position is precarious. 2021 proved that a single year of fish shortages can have catastrophic effects on this delicate population.

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