The True Story of a Comeback Species

How the Atlantic Puffin Returned from the Brink of Extinction

by Alexis Cherry , age 15

By 1901 only a single pair of Atlantic puffins inhabited Matinicus Rock off the coast of Maine. At an earlier time, colonies of these birds occupied many other islands in the region. By the 1890’s hunting threatened the survival of the species. In 1901 two puffins survived under the protection of people in a nearby lighthouse that watched over them. The birds began to propagate and thrive.

News soon spread that the puffins population was returning. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned the killing of puffins and many other wild bird species.

Even though the threat of being wiped out by humans was averted, the puffins faced another fearsome menace. Their home had become a comfortable and cozy place for their natural enemy--seagulls. The only way Atlantic Puffins would be able to survive was by slowly repopulating in other places such as Greenland, Iceland, Britain, and the North Atlantic Coasts of Canada.

During the 1970’s an ambitious man named Stephen Kress set out to build the puffin population in North America. He went to Newfoundland’s Great Island with two research assistants. There he launched “Project Puffin.”

Kress and his team headed out to Eastern Egg Rock with as many puffin chicks as they could carry. They dug burrows similar to the ones the chicks’ parents would make. Kress and his team nurtured the chicks until they were fledglings. At last, they left their new home to live out at sea. 

For the first few years Kress had seen no sign of the puffins.  Then, about four years later he saw a puffin in nearby waters. This did not mean that it had accepted Eastern Egg Rock as its home, but it was a hopeful sign. It wasn’t until 1981 that Kress and his team of scientists saw two adult puffins gathering mouthfuls of fish for their new chick. And at that moment, he accomplished his goal.

[Source: Smithsonian]