No, the Puffin is not a Bellwether of Climate Change

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Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 4 August 2022

Contrary to claims made in the Boston Globe, the fabulously cute and cartoonish Puffins are not a bellwether of Climate Change.  Particularly not the puffins of the Gulf of Maine.    The Globe quotes Donald Lyons, director of conservation science at the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute in Bremen, Maine, saying:  “There are real red flags — warning signs — right now for these puffins.  They’re the proverbial canary in the coal mines for our oceans.”  The second sentence is utterly false but there is a nugget of truth in the first sentence.

Let’s start with the truth about Puffins.  The IUCN states that the worldwide population is somewhere between 12 to 14 million:


The European population is estimated to be 4,770,000-5,780,000 pairs, which equates to 9,550,000-11,600,000 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2015). The global population size is estimated at 12–14 million mature individuals (Harris and Wanless 2011; Berglund and Hentati-Sundberg 2014).

Trend Justification: The population size in Europe is estimated and projected to decrease by 50-79% during 2000-2065 (three generations) (BirdLife International 2015). Europe holds >90% of the global population, so the projected declines in Europe are globally significant. The overall trend of the West Atlantic population is unknown (Berglund and Hentati-Sundberg 2014), and it is very tentatively suspected that overall declines may fall in the range 30-49% over three generations. Populations are suspected to be declining rapidly through the combined impact of predation by invasive species, pollution, food shortages caused by the depletion of fisheries and adult mortality in fishing nets.

You may have already guessed that the populations numbers used to label the Atlantic Puffin Vulnerable are based on estimates and projections.  Projections from the ever-hysterical BirdLife International, whose lead statement is “More than one in eight species is threatened with extinction.”  And when they say “threatened”, they expressly mean under RCP 8.5 IPCC climate projections.  (If in doubt, read their reports.)

But what does the IUCN Red List really say about Atlantic Puffin populations?

Populations are suspected to be declining rapidly through the combined impact of predation by invasive speciespollutionfood shortages caused by the depletion of fisheries and adult mortality in fishing nets.

Oops, no climate change in that statement.  I have my doubts that undefined “pollution” is causing population decline across such a large range.   However, for puffin lovers, it is important to know that there are three puffin species:  the Atlantic Puffin (with which we are concerned here today) and  the Tufted Puffin and Horned Puffin, both of which are listed as Least Concern.

I have written about puffins here at WUWT before: The Problem with Puffins.  The bottom line for UK puffins was that  ”The temperature of waters around the country [UK] is governed by long-term cycles of what is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), with periods of colder water alternating with warmer.”

Here we see that the AMO Index has been in the warm stage since 1998, dropping below zero only briefly and occasionally.  This generally means warmer waters further north in the Atlantic.  Warmer waters, even a degree or two, can affect which plankton are more abundant in what areas – plankton affect small fish species – small fish species affect larger fish and sea birds that feed on small fish.  Puffin are sea birds that depend on abundant small fish to feed their hatchlings. Thus when the abundance of the small fish species that puffins prefer to feed their hatchlings drops or shifts to slightly different areas, the puffins must shift where they breed and nest.  On the UK, the puffins simply moved to better nesting grounds.

So, what is the situation in the Gulf of Maine?

Quoting the Boston Globe:

“In Maine, where puffins are designated as “threatened” on the state’s list of endangered species, scientists estimate there are only several thousand of the tourist-attracting birds left. Maine has never had a large number of the seabirds. But their population has been decimated over the years by people harvesting their eggs and feathers; entanglements in fishing nets; and predation by everything from rats to herring gulls.”

The causes of the decline are not factual, but surmised from the generalized IUCN/BirdLife statements about puffin declines.  The two credible causes in the Gulf of Maine are predation by humans and by rats, cats, dogs introduced to the nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine over the last couple of centuries.  Gulls and other predatory sea birds have always taken hatchlings of all species.

Oh, and then there is this fact: 

Nearly killed off in the 19th century, the region’s puffins rebounded in recent decades after Stephen Kress of the National Audubon Society established a puffin restoration project here in the 1970s, transferring hundreds of chicks from Newfoundland.”

The Gulf of Maine puffins that seem to be having a hard time are those that have been reintroduced to islands in the Gulf after having been nearly extirpated in the 1800s.    They are part of a restoration project.  They are not a naturally occurring population.  They are an experimental reintroduction.  Some years they do well, some years, particularly last year, they had a bad year on some of the islands, but are reported to be doing better this year.

This puffin reintroduction project seems to be having some success – as do many human instigated restorations of species that have been hunted out, and if this is really the case for Gulf of Maine puffins, then laws preventing egg collecting and the slaughter of puffins would be enough.  However, many island species have been inadvertently killed off by human introduced predators such as cats, dogs, rats, goats and pigs in which cases complete eradication of the predators is necessary for success.  Remember, these and other birds often nest on these isolated islands (and on inaccessible cliffs) instead of the near-by shore because the islands lack land-based predators.

Bottom Lines:

1.  The nearly 50-year attempt to reintroduce puffins to islands in the Gulf of Maine is having some success – nothing spectacular but some progress is being made. 

2.  There does not seem to have been any evaluation of why the puffins need restoration or why they have not naturally reoccupied these islands once hunting and egg collection ceased.  Or if there is any cultural or scientifically supportable reason to make the effort.  It does not seem that the Gulf of Maine puffin population was ever large or important – it may have been just a minor population on the fringe of Atlantic Puffins range, occupied in good years, abandoned in bad.

3.  Linda Welch is quoted saying  “Instead, each spring I now find myself wondering if this will be the year the birds finally give up and decide not to nest on a particular island.” [ Boston Globe ]  My question is:  Should we be spending the effort and money to force them to nest where we want them to?

4.  The natural cycle called the AMO has been in the “warm” mode (warming the northern-most Atlantic waters a degree or so) for decades.  This does shift populations of plankton and thus of small fish abundance to the north which may affect the puffin nesting range.  The AMO will shift back again – maybe next decade.  The AMO is not caused nor controlled by Climate Change but instead the AMO causes decadal changes in local climates.

5.  In general, helping birds and animals reestablish themselves in their natural ranges is a good idea.  Sometimes human activity and non-native predator introduction are causes that can be corrected.  There have been successful projects on several Southern California Channel Islands and in the Aleutians and some good efforts are being made in the Galapagos.

6. I have doubts about this Gulf of Maine puffin project – if the puffins have not thrived after 50 years of effort, maybe we just don’t “know best”. 

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Author’s Comment:   

Like many (most?) Mainstream Media reports, this is a narrative journalism piece – it tells a pretty and emotional story.  The Boston Globe, unsurprisingly, is a member of the Columbia Journalism School’s climate propaganda cabal, Covering Climate Now, which means it has pledged to “make every story a climate story.”  The story, as it appears, is chock full of climate nonsense, obscuring the real facts behind a questionable species reintroduction story.

If you read the Globe article, you get an idea of just how intrusive the research project personnel are in the puffin habitat, repeatedly taking chicks from their nests to be weighed and measured, storing them in milk cartons in the process.  Do they keep records of hatchling success comparing handled chicks and not-handled chicks?  I would find that data interesting.

Oh – “No, Puffins are a Bellwether of Climate Change” —  but boy are they cute! (and, if the Icelanders are any culinary measure, delicious too!)

Thanks for reading.

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via Watts Up With That?

August 25, 2022