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Atlantic puffins making a comeback after devastating year of insufficient food: ‘They are messengers of what’s happening at sea’

In 2021, puffins suffered one of their worst years in decades.

In 2021, puffins suffered one of their worst years in decades.

Photo Credit: iStock

The population of Atlantic puffins — the adorable and colorful, some would say clownish, sea bird living off the coast of Maine — is continuing to recover following a disastrous 2021. 

As reported by the Associated Press, the only place in the United States that puffins call home is a handful of islands in the Gulf of Maine, and the small body of water is warming quicker than any other place in the Earth’s oceans. 

2021 marked the hottest year on record for average annual sea surface temperature, and 2022 was the second hottest. The warming waters have affected the food supply for seabirds, including puffins. 

Adult puffins dive into the water to find food for their chicks. Their preferred fish to catch is the herring, because it’s long and thin and easy for their chicks to swallow. However, warmer waters cause herring to go deeper and further from shore. The puffins still have the option of catching butterfish, but because of their shape, they are difficult for chicks to swallow, causing them to give up, meaning they don’t get a meal.

In 2021, puffins suffered one of their worst reproductive years in decades because of the lack of food, resulting in only a quarter of the birds being able to raise chicks. The puffins’ saving grace this year has been an abundance of the sand lance, allowing the puffins to thrive. This marks the second year in a row that puffins have had a successful breeding season.

“What that means is we should be more cautious and concerned about reproductive failures and things like that to make sure that in good years everyone that wants to has a chance to breed, and do well,” P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington professor of biology and director of the university’s Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, told the AP.

Puffins, which were nearly extinct in the region just a few decades ago due to overhunting, are a popular tourist attraction in the area.

Steve Kress, who has been working to revive the puffin population since 1973, believes what happens with the puffin tells a larger story.

“These birds tell us about the world,” Kress said. “They tell us about the oceans, and because the oceans cover two-thirds of the planet, they are messengers of what’s happening at sea, and what happens at sea affects not just puffins, but people and everything on this planet.”

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