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Puffins, Cute as Their Name, Are No Longer Endangered in Maine : Preservation: Restoration effort has brought the sea birds back--and bird watchers along with them.

October 16, 1994|VICTORIA BRETT | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEAL ISLAND, Me. — The Atlantic Puffins casually mill about this rocky island, looking like clowns in tuxedos too content to notice the dozens of tourists who have boated out to see them.

But life hasn't always been easy for these quirky birds--sometimes called sea parrots--on the islands off the coast of Maine.

Maine's puffins were nearly wiped out by hunters a century ago. But they're returning in record numbers, thanks to an innovative restoration effort by the National Audubon Society.

"The message is that it is possible for people to actively encourage a species to establish a colony. People can restore it as well as decimate it," said Dr. Steven Kress, director of the society's Puffin Project.

Kress and his team of researchers launched the recolonization project in 1973, transplanting puffin chicks from Newfoundland, where they are plentiful, to man-made burrows on Eastern Egg Rock, a desolate island in Muscongus Bay.

"I thought it might work if we moved some of them and got them to learn a new home. They could take care of themselves after we finished rearing them," Kress said.

A total of 950 chicks were transplanted to Maine's islands by 1989, including Seal Island, a stark 100-acre site once used for target practice by warplanes and warships during World War II.

In a further attempt to lure puffins to the islands--the most southern colony for Atlantic Puffins--decoys perch atop granite rocks and mating calls waft from solar-powered CD players.

"We're testing the power of social attraction," Kress said.

It appears to be working.

This year the puffins, which look like a cross between a penguin and a parrot, came back in record numbers. With 19 nesting pairs on Seal Island in outer Penobscot Bay, 120 pairs on neighboring Matinicus Rock and 15 on Eastern Egg Rock, there were more puffins in the Gulf of Maine this summer than any time this century.

"The puffins are not an endangered species (in Maine), but a rare and vulnerable species," Kress said.

Kress' model for restoring bird colonies is being used to attract other types of birds in California, New York, Nebraska, Massachusetts and Hawaii, as well as Japan and the Galapagos Islands.

As the recolonization efforts attract puffins, the puffins attract tourists.

Throughout the summer, boatloads of people come to see what has become one of Maine's unofficial symbols. In the last six years, about 13,000 bird watchers have paid about $35 each to spend a day on an Audubon Society "puffin cruise" in hopes of catching a glimpse of the unusual sea bird.

"The puffins are cute and colorful with human characteristics . . . their popularity is like the penguin thing," said Rick Shauffler, the Audubon Society supervisor for Seal Island, as he sat in a blind watching birds with binoculars.

The bird's dumpy body and stubby legs make them clumsy on land, but the puffins are masters of the sea, where they live when they are not nesting in the summer. The pigeon-size birds can dive at least 150 feet deep and hold up to 28 fish at one time in their colorful beaks.

"If a puffin could lay an egg that floats we'd never see them," Susan Jones, a volunteer with the Audubon Society, said on a recent cruise.

But because the puffins nest for four months in the summer, so does Shauffler.

For the last four summers, he has been the bearded guardian of this treeless island. He lives in a small shack and, along with other field researchers, records crucial data on the puffins and Arctic terns.

He rarely leaves, relying on the puffin cruises to bring him mail and supplies.

It is an ideal life for Shauffler, 35. Peacefully watching birds most of the day and taking breaks to go fishing or haul lobsters, he often ends his day with a sunset dinner.

"You have to be into it and enjoy the opportunities you have here. . . . You can't miss the things you can't have," he said. "It's good for someone like me."

And good for the puffins.

A Puffin Primer

* Puffins live 25 to 30 years.

* It takes puffins five years to mature and begin breeding.

* The female lays only one egg a year.

* From the time puffins first leave the nest they may not touch land again for two or three years.

* Puffins can dive at least 150 feet deep.

* They can hold up to 28 fish in their beaks.

* The birds are about 10 inches tall.

* Puffins nest from April to August in colonies in burrows or rock cavities.

* Eastern Egg Rock in Maine is the most southern Atlantic Puffin colony.

* The Pacific Puffin is found on the West Coast as far south as California.

Source: Associated Press

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