How the Puffin Returned to Eastern Egg Rock

A puffin sits on a rock next to a puffin decoy.

Wood carved puffin decoys were placed on rocks to attract the return of fledgling puffins. 

(Derrick Z. Jackson, co-author with Steve Kress of "Project Puffin," published by Yale University Press)

In 1969, 23-year-old Stephen Kress sat in a library on Hog Island, where he taught courses about birds at an Audubon summer camp off the coast of Maine. He flipped open a book about Maine’s birds to the entry on Atlantic puffins, those captivating seabirds with colorful faces. The book described the many rocky offshore islands where puffins once nested — and the demise of those colonies, when hunters took puffin eggs and shot adult birds for food. By 1901, puffins nested on only one island in the United States; the rest of the colonies had been exterminated.

Then Kress read six words that would change his life. In that list of former puffin colonies, he found a description of Eastern Egg Rock, which lay only eight miles from where he sat. According to the book, “the Puffin bred on these rocks,” a fact long forgotten by anyone on Hog Island. He gazed out the window and imagined the ghosts of puffins ferrying silver fish from the sea to their chicks — puffins that hadn’t nested there since 1890. 

“The sadness of this new vision and the deep sense of loss triggered intense curiosity within me,” Kress wrote in his autobiography Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock. “It all made me ask, ‘What if?’ If only there was a way to bring the puffins back!”

If only, indeed. Kress was inexperienced but determined, and read all he could about the birds to find a way to bring them back. He learned that each summer puffin parents return to their nesting colony and lay a single egg in an underground burrow; once it hatches, they dutifully catch and feed fish to their chick. When the chick is strong enough, it emerges from its burrow, leaves its parents behind, and braves life on the open ocean alone. After several years, it returns to its birthplace to find a mate and raise chicks of its own.

This gave Kress a bold idea: If he moved puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock and raised them there, would they return to nest as adults?

Four years later, after much hard work, his idea had transformed into a true scientific endeavor. “It was an idea that hatched in my mind and then took a little time to incubate,” he says. In the summer of 1973, he was ready to test his plan. The Project Puffin team — consisting of himself and two field assistants — visited Newfoundland’s Great Island, one of the largest puffin colonies in North America. They reached their hands deep into puffin burrows to remove chicks, and carried them safely in soup cans for their journey back to Maine.

Preview A puffin with a mouthful of fish.
Atlantic puffins have spiny tongues that, pressed against the roof of their mouths, help to hold ten or more small forage fish at once without losing any along the way. (Steve Garvie, Flickr)

Over the next decade, Kress would bring hundreds of puffin chicks to Eastern Egg Rock. The Project Puffin team raised the chicks in handmade burrows like those puffin parents would have dug. For about four weeks, they fed them fish (fortified with vitamins) three times per day while scaring off predators like big seagulls. (They also had to perform less savory parental duties, like cleaning poop from the burrows and picking lice and ticks from the chicks’ feathers.)

And then, each August when the chicks were ready, Kress watched them leave the nest (an act called “fledging”) to spend their teenage years on the open ocean. He compares it to seeing a child off to college: “There’s a sense of, ‘Wow, I managed to get them out the door!’ But on the other hand you worry about them because you don’t know all the pitfalls out there in life.” And for puffins, there are a lot of pitfalls. They have to find their own food and survive storms. They have to avoid predators like birds and large fish. And then there are human impacts like fisheries, ocean trash, and oil spills to avoid. “You wonder: will they ever come back?” says Kress. “I am by nature an optimist so I was hopeful that they would.”

But they didn’t — not for a few years, at least. Four years went by and none of the chicks had returned, and Kress and the other researchers began to worry. (Before the chicks fledged, the Project Puffin team placed plastic bands around their ankles so they could recognize them again.) So they took an idea from puffin hunters in Iceland and placed wooden carvings of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock as decoys to try and attract them. “The birds quickly realize it’s not the real thing,” says Kress. “But it does give them a reason to land and then they become decoys for others. So the colony builds on itself that way.”

Then, on June 12, 1977, the first puffin showed up, and Kress was elated. It took four more years — until 1981 — before the birds started nesting on Eastern Egg Rock. For two decades, only 15 puffin pairs nested in the small colony. Finally, in the late 1990s, more puffins arrived; today around 150 pairs of puffin parents raise chicks on Eastern Egg Rock.

All in all, the project has been a great success. Between 1973 and 1986, Kress relocated 954 puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock, and 914 of those chicks successfully fledged. The same methods were used on other colonies, and today more than 1,000 puffin pairs nest on five Maine islands.

But it took time — and a lot of patience. The first adult puffin didn’t return to Eastern Egg Rock until 8 years after they moved the first chick, and another four years passed before they started breeding. Even today, the work does not end as Project Puffin workers protect the puffin from predators.

Preview A puffin sits on a rock.
Atlantic Puffins were eradicated from Maine by hunters in the late 19th century, but have since returned to nest in the area thanks to conservation work. (© Nancy Rynes)

Some people don’t like that idea, says Kress; they believe that wildlife should survive on its own without any help from people. Back in the 1970s, some scientists opposed Project Puffin for the same reasons. “The general thinking in wildlife management was to let nature take its course,” Kress says. “I had to make the case that this was worthy, that it had value not just for puffins but for other species.”

And he did. The methods used in Project Puffin — relocating and raising chicks, placing decoy birds to attract adults, and others — have been used to restore colonies of at least 47 seabird species, including endangered species such as the Bermuda petrel, short-tailed albatross, and the Chinese crested tern.

For all these projects, the work doesn’t end; the birds require ongoing protection and care. To Kress, this is a given — and indeed is our main task as our planet’s stewards. That job is also becoming more challenging as warmer water makes it harder for some puffins to find food.

“Our job is to make sure we don’t lose life on Earth, and as a culture and as a society, we need to commit ourselves to this concept that this means ongoing stewardship,” he says. “It’s up to individual people to care and make a difference in every way they can. I think that can come through financial support, voting responsibly, and it can come through personal action at home through our lifestyles. Those are all things that the puffins are telling us.”

This story was made possible by a grant from the Smithsonian Women's Committee.

January 2017