Scientists: Puffins starving with less food available

Associated Press

Portland, Maine — Atlantic puffin chicks on Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine have had the worst breeding season ever recorded, with the majority of chicks starving to death in burrows, scientists said.

A drop in the puffins’ food supply is to blame, said Tony Diamond, director of the Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research at the University of New Brunswick. Scientists have also said higher ocean temperatures have decreased the availability of the forage fish that young puffins like to eat.

In a typical year, 60 percent of the puffin nests with eggs produce chicks that fly off the nest, and this year, the success rate was 12 percent, the Portland Press Herald reported.

“Those that fledged were often very small with lots of down left in their plumage, so I don’t expect . any of the chicks that hatched to survive long enough to breed,” Diamond told the newspaper.

Puffins are seabirds with colorful beaks that are popular with birdwatchers because of their unique appearance. The adults fly out to catch fish to feed their young, which stay behind in burrows. Researchers began monitoring the Machias Seal Island colony, which is 20 miles south of Machias and home to more than 5,000 pairs of puffins, in 1995.

Cornell University ornithologist Stephen Kress said the puffin success rate was better on islands off mid-coast Maine. Those puffins’ biggest food source has been warmer-water redfish, while they typically eat juvenile white hake and sand lance.

However, the Seal Island birds likely suffered because they couldn’t find such an alternate food supply, Kress said.