Atlantic puffins thrive in Maine gift stores. You can find puffin-shaped cookies, puffin coasters, puffin socks, puffin mugs, puffin pillows, puffin clocks, and puffin masks.
You can stay at the Puffin Inn in Ogunquit after shopping at Rusted Puffin Metal Works in Portland, and take the edge off with some “top-quality, craft cannabis products” from the Great Atlantic Puffin Co. in Fryeburg.
With all the puffin memorabilia available on land you’d think Atlantic puffins were thriving in Maine waters, but the truth is more complicated. It takes lots of work to make sure the puffins that line our gift shop shelves remain in the state.
Birds can’t lay eggs on the water, and so for many seabirds, the only time they come to solid ground in their lives is to breed. Since seabirds mainly eat things found in the sea, they prefer their nests close to the water, but also as free as possible from predators including mice, rats, gulls, and eagles. Rocky offshore islands or tall sea cliffs do the trick.
Except when they don’t.
The trouble with nesting on a rocky island is that your population is concentrated in just one area, and a determined predator can do a lot of damage. For many species nesting on these islands, as well as other species nesting together in one place, overwhelming predators with numbers is a proven strategy.
Mexican free-tailed bats all arrive back at their caves at the same time, perhaps sacrificing one or two to peregrines or red-tailed hawks but otherwise swarming to safety. The eggs of certain turtle species all hatch at the same time so the mass of young trudging to the safety of the water will overrun predators and ensure that some babies get through.
Seabirds try to overwhelm predators, too. Just look at the volunteer biologists working on Maine’s seabird islands as they walk across the island to blinds to do point counts or other science – they’re mobbed in clouds of angry birds. Volunteers often use umbrellas or carry sticks above their heads, hoping the birds will attack the sticks instead of their heads.
(Although the biologists are helpers the seabirds are right to be afraid of people: humans looking for eggs and meat are responsible for extirpating Atlantic puffins and other species from Maine islands in the late 1800s.)
But Maine’s seabird islands are small, and predators and other competitors are hungry. The coast of Maine was always probably the southern extent of the breeding range for Atlantic puffins, as well as razorbills, common murres, and others.
Now, as the Gulf of Maine warms, new species like the laughing gull are expanding their range north, adding to herring gull populations already greatly expanded from feeding on the waste produced by humans. Bald eagles have also rebounded, thankfully, but know they can find a meal on coastal islands and are already impacting populations of coastal-nesting great blue herons and great cormorants.
Atlantic puffins would likely not exist in Maine if not for the continued dedication of the National Audubon Society’s Puffin Project, which helped relocate and reestablish Atlantic puffins to historic colonies in 1973 and continues to staff and protect these islands every year. Human impacts reach far and wide, and even the wild nature we believe exists off our remote waters, at once so harmed by human activities, now depends on assistance from hard-working scientists and conservationists.
It’s a positive story, and I’d have it no other way.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.