Experts predict the UK could lose up to eight million puffins over the next 50 years as puffins come up against changes to their habitat, new predator threats, lack of food and rising sea temperatures due to climate change. In fact, puffins are now so rare they’re on the red list of endangered species and at as much risk of extinction as the African elephant, polar bear and lion.
Thankfully, though, help is at hand for these wonderful birds in the form of a special team of experts at the RSPB.
Over the past few months, they’ve been out along Britain’s coastline, and particularly in the beautiful Fair Isle, where they’ve been carrying out a vital project to help puffin welfare.
“One of the interesting things about puffins is just how little we know about them," says Dr Ellie Owen from the RSPB, who was leading the team that went up to the remote northern Scotland island. "We only see them for a really short period of time when they’re on the cliffs, but they spend most of their time at sea. So what we decided to do was track the seabirds using tags to find out where they’re going to feed. This means we can then protect those places, ensuring they have a better chance of feeding their chicks and the colony thriving. We can also use this information to advise on the development of offshore wind farms, to make sure they’re not threatening seabirds.”
Finding out more about the behaviour of puffins and how many of them are successfully reproducing and rearing their young – adorably called pufflings – by tagging them, is crucial work for their survival.
It’s also very sensitive work as the ecologists working with Ellie have to act quickly and quietly to tag these birds without upsetting them. They catch the birds using mist nets as they head back to their burrows carrying fish – a sure sign that they have a hungry little mouth to feed in there.
They then ring and measure the puffin, before attaching a GPS on their back using a special tape that sticks to their feathers for a short while until it eventually falls off by itself, meaning scientists don’t have to capture the bird a second time to remove it. The whole process is done in a matter of minutes and in silence so it doesn’t scare the birds, before the puffin is released to go about its day fishing and feeding the chick.
These tags transmit details of where the puffin goes into a radio receiver and even records where they go when they leave the cliffs. Motion-triggered cameras placed outside the puffin burrows also give a fascinating insight into how new families of puffins are getting along with their latest little additions.
But it’s not just puffin monitoring that the RSPB are doing to help these birds.
They’re also trying to eradicate the problem of non-native rats who have overrun the islands where puffins breed, eating thousands of their chicks and eggs every year. Conservation of the seas, to reduce the chance of marine pollution that may kill off puffins and their prey – typically sand eels – is incredibly important, too.
“Being able to work with birds like puffins is a great privilege," says Ellie. "And research like this allows us to shed some light on where these birds go when they leave the cliffs. Being able to map their feeding ranges puts the responsibility on us for these birds. We need to act now to help them before it is too late.”
Adopt a puffin!
If you’d like to help support puffins you can adopt one from just £3 a month. To find out more call 01767 693680 or visit www.rspb.org.uk/joinandhelp
Did you know...?
- The UK species is called the Atlantic puffin and the British Isles are home to 10 per cent of the world’s Atlantic puffins.
- Adult puffins spend winter out at sea, where they can dive up to 60m under water.
- At Easter, they return to their colonies for a land-bound existence. Once moored up, puffins excavate a nesting burrow in the soil, using their sharp claws, and sometimes even gatecrash rabbit burrows. Or they’ll set up home under boulders or in cavities on cliff edges.
- The one egg that puffins lay is incubated by both parents for 36-45 days. Then mum and dad share feeding duties until the chick is ready to leave the nest in the dead of night to avoid predators.
Where to go puffin spotting!
Grab your binoculars, settle down and enjoy a spectacular spot of puffin-watching here in the UK:
- Fair Isle, Shetland
- RSPB Sumburgh Head, Shetland
- Skomer, Pembrokeshire, Wales
- RSPB Rathlin Island, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
- Isle of May, Fife, Scotland
- RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire
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