Why These Baby Puffins Need a Helping Hand

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Volunteers release stranded pufflings near the sea. Sandra Woito Photography

One summer, when Juergen and Elfie Schau of Germany were at their getaway in Canada's Witless Bay, they began noticing tiny baby puffins stranded along the roadways. They started rescuing the chicks and soon realized this happened every year during fledgling season.

The coastal town in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is a popular breeding ground for puffins and petrels. Witless Bay has about 260,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins, the largest colony in North America, and 780,000 pairs of Leach's storm petrels, the second largest colony in the world.

Puffins and petrels live most of their lives on the sea, returning to land between August and October to mate, producing a single egg per pair. They stay only long enough to incubate the egg and wait for the chick to fledge or fly, then they return to the sea.

When the pufflings hatch, they immediately fledge, says Mary Alliston Butt, marine coordinator for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter. Then they follow the moonlight as a navigational tool to help find the sea.

"Due to artificial lighting (houses, street lights, etc), they become confused as to which 'moon' they should follow," Butt tells MNN. "They often follow the artificial lights, leading them inland, becoming stranded on the streets, in the woods, etc., where predation and starvation levels are severe."

Adult puffins don't seem to get confused like the chicks. It may be because they're used to the paths they take, Butt says.

"Puffins mate for life and return to the same spot every year to mate, their path back to the ocean is instinctual now, as opposed to a puffling, who has emerged into life for the first time."

Why the moon matters

puffling being held
Pufflings are released during the daytime so they aren't confused again by nighttime light pollution. Sandra Woito Photography

Which is why the Schaus were finding so many pufflings that had lost their way. The couple would rescue the confused chicks from various spots throughout the town and take them to the sea. The first few years they were on their mission alone, but as they told more people about the stranded pufflings, other people wanted to help. Each year, more volunteers stepped in to help rescue the chicks and more birds were saved.

By 2011, CPAWS teamed with the Schaus and expanded the Puffin and Petrel Patrol program. The organization now funds and organizes the patrol each year in partnership with Canadian Wildlife Service, which provides a seabird biologist to help process the birds before they are released.

The rescue program originally focused on stranded pufflings but expanded to include petrels when organizers realized that petrel chicks were being stranded for the same reason. The difference is that petrel babies fledge a little bit later (September and October versus August and September).

Each night during fledgling season, volunteers receive safety gear, a net, a box and a permit. (Because the birds are migratory, they are protected and can't be handled without a permit.) When a puffling is spotted, it is captured with a net and placed in a box until morning, when it is released. The release happens during daylight, Butt says, so the birds are able to see where they're flying. If they're released the same night, they will likely return inland, following the same lights that caused them to be stranded.

Petrel chicks, on the other hand, are released at night because they're more sensitive to nocturnal behaviors, Butt says. They are released on a dark beach so they won't be confused by urban lights.

The number of birds found varies each night. There are more stranded chicks when it's foggy or the moon isn't very full.

"With the moon hidden the chance of the pufflings following artificial lighting is significantly higher," Butt says. "Nights where there is a new moon, or a clear night, numbers typically decrease. Some nights zero are found, and others 100 can be found."

Dedicated volunteers and a passionate campaign

pufflings released by volunteers
Volunteers sometimes plan special trips from all over the world just to come help rescue stranded chicks. Sandra Woito Photography

There are some volunteers who have been with the program since nearly the beginning, and there are new people joining every year. Volunteers include people in the community, as well as people who come from around the province, the country and even around the world.

"We have individuals that plan their trips to Newfoundland just so they can participate," Butts says. "We have had people from the States, Germany, Australia, France, etc. In one season, there are perhaps over 200 volunteers, or more."

In 2017, more than 700 pufflings were released back to the ocean. Before the birds are released, a biologist records the weight and wing length and bands the chick's ankle in order to create a snapshot of the population's health.

The campaign works to educate the public about light pollution, asking people to turn off outdoor lighting when possible, to use lower wattage and coloring on outdoor bulbs, and install shade on street lights.

"The nights when no pufflings are found are amazing nights because we know they all made it to the ocean, on their own, and safely," Butt says. "We hope to continue this education and hope that the awareness of light pollution overpowers the want to catch a puffling, as we want them to be in their natural environment, on the ocean. This issue is not only threatening pufflings here in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, but also Iceland, and even turtles down south. Light pollution is a serious problem to our oceanic creatures."