The Problem with Puffins

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


featured_image_430featured_image_430Catastrophe looms for the problematic puffin.  The likeable comically shaped and  cartoonishly colored birds that are the emblematic symbol of Iceland and are the official bird symbol for the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, are definitely doomed if something isn’t done.  Or so we’ve been told.

Headlines scream:

Why Are Puffins Vanishing? The Hunt for Clues Goes Deep

UK puffins may go the way of the dodo with fears of extinction in 50 years

Puffins ‘could be extinct within decades’

Iceland’s Beloved Puffin Now Officially Endangered

Puffins could be about to become extinct


What is the Problem with Puffins? 

Nothing really.  Except for the news about puffins, that is.    One bit of news is that “Surveys have revealed that the number of Atlantic puffins has declined at several sites across the UK.”  (Metro News) And that “Though some puffin colonies are prospering, in Iceland, where the largest population of Atlantic puffins is found, their numbers have dropped from roughly seven million individuals to about 5.4 million.” (NY Times)  At the same time, Birdlife International estimates the European population alone at “9,550,000-11,600,000 mature individuals”.


So here’s the problem, some local populations of puffins have declined and that decline has caused some activist groups, such as the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), to raise the alarm.  The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland [the “united” part based on the UK comprising England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales] is located on a group of islands to the northwest of continental Europe.  It has an area about the size of the US state of Michigan (or Oregon, or Wyoming).  So the national population of puffins there can rightly be considered a local population.  The problem discovered in the UK was that the basic diet item of the puffins during breeding season, and the primary diet fed to newly hatched chicks, the sand eel (some times written sandeel) has been a major target of industrial fishing for animal feed and fertilizer.  As a result a great deal of work has been done to provide marine sanctuaries and marine protected areas to recover the sand eel populations which will in turn help recover populations of sea birds and marine mammals that depend on them for food.


As with so many other sea birds,  Atlantic puffins  are  “threatened by overfishing, invasive predators such as rats on some islands and marine pollution.”  (Metro News) The first two are serious concerns.  Overfishing their primary prey species, vital during the chick rearing season, is believed to have led to declines, especially in the North Sea.  Puffins are ground nesting, like most sea birds, and egg and chick predation by rats (and cats and dogs) can easily sharply reduce the breeding success of a colony.  For that reason, most puffin rookeries are found on unpopulated islands which lessens the threat of invasive species — rats, cats, dogs.

Of course, every media report on the problem with puffins reports that “Climate change could be contributing to food shortages and extreme weather hitting the birds”.   Can puffins populations be affected by “extreme weather”?  Yes, of course, puffins live on the high seas, except when breeding, and when strong storms hit, puffins can be adversely affected.

There is a real story here about change affecting the birds. It’s just not Climate Change.  It is this change:  ”The temperature of waters around the country is governed by long-term cycles of what is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, with periods of colder water alternating with warmer. Between the 1965-1995 cold cycle and the current warm cycle, Dr. Hansen said, winter temperature records show about one degree Celsius of additional warming — a seemingly small amount, but disastrous for the sand eels.” (NY Times) The hypothesis is that warmer waters of the current state of the AMO either directly cause a decline in sand eel populations, or move the sand eel populations to different, more northern,  areas.

Well, sort of…..

The 2014 RSPB report informs us that:

“The sand eel recruitment collapse observed in parts of the North Sea appears to be associated with warming seas and changes in zooplankton abundance and distribution. Zooplankton distributions are determined by oceanographic conditions such as sea temperature and the timing of stratification, with higher temperatures associated with northward shifts in Calanus finmarchicus [populations].  Sand eel recruitment is therefore likely to be reduced by warming seas, acting in part via zooplankton availability. “

Here he (or she) is:


Calanus finmarchicus is about twice the size of a grain of sugar and is the primary food item for sand eels.  As every marine biologist knows, the cold arctic waters allow for abundant populations of zooplankton– that why whales go there to feed.

When the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO)  shifts from its cool phase to its warm phase, as it did in the mid-1990s, the plankton populations shift further north to where the waters are a bit cooler.  That’s bad for the sandeels at the southern edges of their range.

The NY Times article is in the “Climate” section — which means every story must be about Anthropogenic Climate Change — even if it has to be made up.  There is a climate factor, but the factor is not AGW, it is the cyclic climatic feature known as the AMO.

So, in the predator- prey natural world, puffins (and many other sea birds and piscivorous –fish-eating– fish) eat sand eels and depend on their abundance for the next generation of chicks to be recruited as adults.   Sandeels eat Calanus finmarchus and depend on their abundance sustain high populations numbers.


Population dynamics are very complicated and very complex.  This is just the top layer of the complexity onion — puffins depend on sand eels during the breeding season to feed their young. But, especially around the UK, humans have been overfishing  the sand eels in some areas, causing a sandeel collapse.  Local populations of puffins were hit hard.  But they have now have stopped fishing so many sandeels (used for pet food and fertilizer) by establishing limits and marine protected areas…. but they also stopped fishing so many of the species that eat the sand eels, so those sandeel-eating fish are now more abundant and eat more sandeels, leaving fewer sandeels for the seabirds, including the puffins.  At the same time, the warm phase of the AMO is still on, though it is beginning to decline.

Predator-Prey is a interesting little set of non-linear equations, but can be simplified and simulated to look at bit like this:


The prey, in our case sandeels, decrease in numbers (starting at time 7 and decreasing through to 11) and the subsequent decrease in the predator (think our problematic puffins) continue to increase for a bit, but then begin to decline as well, but after a bit of lag.  So here’s our AMO chart:


Around 1995 or so, the AMO shifts from cold to warm peaking at about 2008. That shift causes a decline of available Calanus finmarchicus (which, along with the other cold water plankton, shift north) which,  with a time lag then starts a decline in their predator the sandeels, and with another time lag, we begin to see a decline in sea bird numbers, including puffins.


The maybe results from our uncertainty about the population numbers of all three species, but there have been good counts of puffins at some of their smaller, well researched  rookeries in the UK.

Birdlife International has declared the puffins “endangered” based on projections of steep declines in population numbers based on climate modelsof future warming.  Of course, their declaration is bogus — the Atlantic Puffin has been declared VULNERABLE — on the IUCN Red List.  The definition of the classification vulnerable  is define in the booklet “IUCN Red List categories and criteria” as:


“A taxon is Vulnerable when the best available evidence indicates that it meets any of the criteria A to E for Vulnerable (see Section V), and it is therefore considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.”

The only criteria A to E that puffins qualify under is:

“E. Quantitative analysis showing the probability of extinction in the wild is at least 50% within 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer (up to a maximum of 100 years).”

“Probability of extinction is at least 50% within 10 years or three generations”…?

I don’t want to be rude, but someone has got to be kidding someone on that classification.  How many Atlantic Puffins do think there are in the world?

IUCN shows populations at “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).”   Eleven million puffins.

In Iceland, there are more puffins than people. “Though some puffin colonies are prospering, in Iceland, where the largest population of Atlantic puffins is found, their numbers have dropped from roughly seven million individuals to about 5.4 million.” (NY Times)   They are guessing, of course, at the numbers.  But we can accept that there is some decline.  After all, “The puffin is the most common bird in Iceland,” said Erpur Snaer Hansen, acting director of the South Iceland Nature Research Center. “It’s also the most hunted one.”

That’s right, the iconic emblematic Icelandic Puffin is so threatened with extinction that it is the island nation’s most hunted bird.

“During a recent stop at Lundey Island, Iceland, Dr. Hansen encountered jovial hunters who had killed hundreds of the birds and were carrying them toward their boats to be sold to restaurants that mainly serve the meat to curious tourists.”

“Hunters with long nets can be seen tooling around Grimsey Island in the summer, leaving behind piles of bird carcasses, the breast meat stripped away. Iceland has restricted the annual harvest, but hunting “is accelerating the decline,” Dr. Hansen said.”  (NY Times)

In Iceland, the locals have a little side industry of killing thousands of breeding puffins at a time, thus dooming their chicks in their nest holes.  Iceland has ”restricted” the annual harvest, but not eliminated it.

Another quote, the bottom line:  “There are still millions of Atlantic puffins, but their plentiful colonies are deceiving, Dr. Hansen said. “These birds are long lived, so you don’t just see them plummeting down,” he said. In the long run, he warned, “It’s not sustainable.”

Dr. Annette L. Fayet’s paper on puffin migration, ”Ocean-wide Drivers of Migration Strategies and Their Influence on Population Breeding Performance in a Declining Seabird” details the complexity of population dynamics of puffins and, like Dr. Hansen, expresses concern that “Although we cannot investigate changes in migratory paths, environmental conditions, and breeding productivity over time with our current dataset, our findings suggest that large puffin colonies may not be sustainable anymore, perhaps because of long-term changes in environmental conditions near the breeding or wintering grounds, affecting the birds’ ability to both refuel in winter and feed their offspring in summer.”

Not only do we have to contend with Predator-Prey non-linearities, we have even more basic non-linearity in general population dynamics, when a population is up against the edge of stability:


(link for  more info on this modified image)

If these huge colonies of puffins have been sustained through 30-100 year conditions, they might look like the second graph above, a bit wobbly, but essentially stable.  Any major change in the parameters affecting their survival can kick such a borderline population over into a wild oscillation — graphs three and four — which may be what we are seeing now or into a totally chaotic pattern.   The uncontrollable factors mentioned in the stories and research papers on puffin populations, combined in various combinations at different locales,  make population prediction nearly impossible.

The primary researcher, Dr. Annette Fayet, is not responsible for the phony climate change accusations.  Her research is serious and taken on a whole properly represents the incredible complexity of the population dynamics and inter-relationships between environmental conditions, predator-prey factors, colony size and migration and feeding patterns.    When she points out “that large puffin colonies may not be sustainable anymore”, there is no assumed blame.

As a thought experiment, imagine you are a zookeeper in a zoo the size of Iceland, and have the task of finding enough fish of the right size conveniently close-by to feed 5.5 million puffins and their newly hatched chicks for several months.   That is the magnitude of the problem facing the puffin colony in Iceland.

It seems that some Atlantic Puffin colonies have declined — and we don’t really know why.  It could be nothing — just a wobble in the chaos of coupled population dynamics.

Like so many other things blamed on Global Warming/Climate Change, this is another trumped up story, mingled with misunderstandings about serious components of the Earth’s climate system, such as the AMO.


What can we do?

If the UK wants to help puffin numbers to recover, then they need to quit netting up all the sandeels and turning them into cat food and fertilizer.  I give them credit,  they have made some regulatory progress on this front with Marine Protected Areas and catch limits, which is laudable.

If Iceland is worried about the puffins, the first thing they can do is the forbid hunting them at breeding time.  Puffins are not a necessary part of the Icelandic diet, they are a “food fad” item for tourists.

Like so many of the well-advertised-by-activists “threatened” species, the first step that mankind can take to preserve them is simple:

Quit intentionally slaughtering them.

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Author’s Comment Policy:

Happy to try to answer your questions or point you to more detailed information by way of web links.

I am very interested in population dynamics, particularly in the linkage of population dynamics and chaos theory.  I am a big fan of admitting when we don’t know the causes of physical and biological phenomena — always better to say “We don’t really know” than to offer guesses under the pretense of greater understanding than we possess.

Don’t bother asking me what I think has caused declines in some puffin populations — I don’t know either.  I’d be pleased to hear your ideas though.

Ten points to the first person to point out the literary reference in the title.

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via Watts Up With That?

October 5, 2018 at 05:01PM

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