No, the Puffin is not a Bellwether of Climate Change

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 species, pollution, food 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.  In 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 Puffin’s 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”. 

# # # # #

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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John Garrett
August 5, 2022 10:22 am

Mein Gott !!

Supposition based on assumption relying on prediction underlying guesses.

…and we’re supposed to believe this is “science?”

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 5, 2022 11:55 am

Em-pathetic appeal.

August 5, 2022 10:33 am

They blame climate change in the UK.

“In 2020, Danish boats alone landed over 171,000 tonnes of sandeel in national ports with Norway, Sweden and other countries contributing a further 67,000 tonnes, leaving a total of 238,000 tonnes of sandeel either being mulched for fish farm feed or being burned in industrial burners for generating electricity.”
comment image

Dr Ken Pollock
Reply to  MrGrimNasty
August 5, 2022 11:37 am

100% right. And the EU has just allowed the Danes to increase their take to 400,000t/yr. And the puffins in North Sea suffer – and the cognoscenti put it down to climate change, but the puffins in Irish Sea – no sandeel fishing – flourish. Work it out for yourself…

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 5, 2022 1:58 pm

This is one danger of being able to blame climate change for everything. You don’t have to fix such a problem. In Germany about a year ago, a smaller city was inundated drowning a number of people below a dam that over-topped in a big rainstorm.

The weather was forecast 3 days in advance with a specific warning. The authorities could have released water from the full reservoir over those day to prepare for it but didn’t. Even Merkl blamed ‘climate change’s.

Tom Halla
August 5, 2022 10:34 am

But feral or housecats do not fit The Narrative.

H. D. Hoese
August 5, 2022 10:37 am
Why are some birds more intelligent than others?
I had a good friend that estimated refuge birds in the Gulf of Mexico. Add up these error bars to the millions along with birds moving, not very accurate. Birds fly, mostly evident to field workers. Skimmers are more at risk because they nest lower on barrier islands, early season minor storms wipe them out sometimes. Saw that once, but we will save them. Puffins mostly stay at sea where they have to worry about sharks.

Reply to  H. D. Hoese
August 5, 2022 11:18 am

And some gulls and skuas and other large sea birds eat them too.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 5, 2022 12:48 pm
August 5, 2022 10:40 am

Green devils are despicable.

Rud Istvan
August 5, 2022 10:45 am

The main reason for the North Sea puffin decline is not the AMO. It is overfishing of their most favorite food, sand eels (actually a small bait fish). Between 1994 and 2003 880,000 metric tons were netted. That is an unimaginable number of little 4 inch fish. They proved to be grossly overfished. After 2003 the annual catch fell by 2/3 and has not yet recovered despite new fishing limits. (Similar to western Atlantic cod off New England and Canada.) The sand eels were used to make fish meal to feed farmed Atlantic Salmon in Scotland and Norway, an industry at that time just burgeoning. So the North Sea puffin decline is human caused, but not by anthropogenic climate change as the Boston Globe fears. Oh, and the favorite food of the Gulf of Maine puffins was cod fingerlings. Struggling to recover, indeed.

Stephen Skinner
Reply to  Rud Istvan
August 6, 2022 6:17 am

Overfishing of Sand Eels is fixable too, unlike trying to control a global average temperature by trying to control a globally diffused and naturally occurring trace gas.

August 5, 2022 11:44 am

Just want to state for the record, Machias Seal Island is clearly American territory, and Canuck invaders need to vacate immediately.

Richard Page
Reply to  Brian
August 5, 2022 12:14 pm

Well that was superb, clearly resonating with everybody and the rapturous applause has been deafening. sarc (in case you missed it)

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 9, 2022 11:50 am

Aw shucks Mr. Hansen, I just wanted those poor puffins to breath free just like all Americans. I didn’t mean to cause no international incidents with those queen lickers…

Oops, there I go again.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 15, 2022 11:02 am

Okay. I’ll be good. I’m sorry everyone. Back to science please.

Reply to  Brian
August 5, 2022 3:59 pm

You mean where the province of New Brunswick built a lighthouse on a rock in 1832 so ships entering St. John’s harbour didn’t sink, that some property tax assessor said was US territory in 1977.
But we might trade for Northwest Angle, Minnesota, Point Roberts Washington….. or the BC Coast south of Chilkoot pass that the trouble causing Kaiser gave the US in 1903 to settle the location of the border that the US refused to survey with the British in 1871 because the survey would be too costly for the “valueless” land…knowing the Russians “sold” it as part of Alaska and that the area was under control of the British fleet at Esquimault BC, not the Russians.

August 5, 2022 11:49 am

I guess Climate Change™ does cause mass extinction of species because it seems the only one left now is the Canary and they are all in coal mines.

Maybe that’s because everywhere is warming twice as fast as everywhere else. That would explain it.
🙄 🙄

Reply to  H.R.
August 6, 2022 11:31 am

The UK had to shut down the entire coal industry , you could not work the coal face because of all the damned canaries flying around.

Frank S.
August 5, 2022 1:10 pm

I love puffins, they’re so cute!

Peta of Newark
August 5, 2022 1:40 pm

Don’t know about Puffins anywhere else but the ones up & down the UK East Coast are being destroyed by trawlers, typically from Denmark, scooping up all the puffins’ food – Sand Eels

These hapless fishes are then ‘processed’ to extract their (supposedly) ultra healthy Omega 3 Oil
(We covered Omega Oil recently on here, how a substance primarily created under the Antarctic Ocean came to be a Dietary Essentional for critters (us) who evolved on tropical grasslands)

The resulting stink mush is then exported to Scottish Salmon farms, where 5Kg of sand-eel mush creates 1Kg of toxic farmed salmon and an insane mountain of stink underneath the nets where the salmon are caged.

It did dawn on yours truly – why don’t we just eat the 1Kg of Sand Eel, save all the expense, stink & pollution and toxic ## end-product of salmon farming?
Leaving 4 Kg of Sand Eels on the bottom of the North Sea for the Puffins to enjoy..

Any suggestions out there why not………..

## The only way to keep the farmed Salmon in any sort of shape is to routinely douse them with insecticides, flukicides and myriad anti-parasitics including Ivermectin.
|I’d venture that the Ivomec content of those farmed fish might be just about the only healthy thing about them.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 6, 2022 12:46 am

Newark was here long before Newark was there 😉

Gary Pearse
August 5, 2022 1:44 pm

About 50 yrs ago, a small bird (wren?) on an island in New Zealand, diminished to two and the female was already a much older age than the species normally lived. A conservation biologist put the two together and then took the eggs from the nest to hatch them. Gradually he began to increase the population. The biologist was invited to parliament where he received a standing ovation.

I can’t seem to find a link, but at the time the biologist was a national hero. I was visiting distant relatives there at the time. They also undertook to completely rid some islands of rats, mice, etc. to relieve declining populations. They surveyed a grid and with an number of volunteers removed every one of them.

August 5, 2022 2:05 pm

Puffin egg omelet is a traditional dish, in Iceland.

Old Man Winter
August 5, 2022 2:06 pm

The restoration project started in the 1970s so they had ~20 yrs of colder
water which would have supplied more plankton & small fish if that were a
big enough part of the problem. Since more cats & rats are there with
human settlement, the key may be to reduce predation, which also helped
polar bears recover. Also, it’s possible gulls may have increased, too, due to more human waste- sea gulls love french fries.

Old Man Winter
Reply to  Old Man Winter
August 5, 2022 2:22 pm

From others’ comments, over-fishing of sandeel & cod would cut their food
supply even if the AMO would bring colder waters. That over-fishing wouldn’t have been there in the ’70s.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Kip Hansen
August 6, 2022 10:29 am

I guess we love our puffins a lot in Canada. They wouldn’t have done this for a stray cowbird from Manitoba.

Reply to  Old Man Winter
August 6, 2022 2:27 am

talking today about the absence of gulls seen inland in SA and Vic, replaced with “binchickens” white ibis and crows

August 5, 2022 2:49 pm

So now. What will happen if it is going to get warmer still?

Reply to  HenryP
August 5, 2022 7:33 pm

We all get to wear bathers to work?

August 5, 2022 3:05 pm

No mention of bird choppers in the North sea/English channel/Irish sea etc. Or did I miss it (no criticism of you Kit).

Tens of thousands of those introduced ‘species’ novel to the global avian and bat populations.

Come to think of it, assuming nuclear power is the threat to humanity that the greens so desire, why don’t they like nuclear power? They want to kill us all off, don’t they?

Which to my twisted mind means that they are aware nuclear is the safest electricity generator know to man, hands down, and demonise it because it’s a threat to humanity, knowing full well it humanity, and the planet’s saviour.

In other words, these fukkrz don’t give a monkey’s about anything other than their best interest. Your average ‘Green Joe’ bumbles along with his head up his arze imagining the BS they sell him will make life better for everyone.

Reply to  HotScot
August 6, 2022 2:29 am

plans for offshore windthings off Geelong and portland and elsewhere right to SA coastline announced by some OS corp yesterday
wonder how many birds they wipe out we dont see cos the bodies sink

August 5, 2022 9:01 pm

All the arctic penguins are extinct because of climate change, so the puffins will have to become canaries now.

August 6, 2022 2:20 am

learn new things all the time
never knew there were 3 sorts of them
bonkers looking birds;-)

H. D. Hoese
August 6, 2022 7:05 am

As for fish stocks discussed here, I am reminded of an attempted thorough analysis of the question about the relation of population fluctuations to fishing without an adequate understanding of natural fluctuations. Burkenroad, M. D.1948. Fluctuation in abundance of Pacific halibut, from A Symposium on Fish Populations at the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology in the Bulletin of the Bingham Oceanographic Collection.11(4):81-129, published by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. There were 9 papers, mostly on European and North American fish stocks, each having a fruitful discussion session. Martin Burkenroad worked in California and Gulf of Mexico and his colleagues described him as versatile and iconoclastic, probably wouldn’t last long today. He had other papers on the fish stock question, one of which I read long ago.

I ran across this recently citing Burkenroad’s still relevant and poorly answered analysis over a half century later–Walters, C. J. and S. J .D. Martell. 2004. Fisheries Ecology and Management. Princeton University Press. The long gone Bingham Bulletin is an early example of the centralization of publication of research. Issue coverage was not just of local importance, however. I suggest that Burkenroad’s example is only one of many that will be written about science failures since WWII. Gulf of Mexico Science recently went out of business. Let’s return to publishing discussions and decentralization.

August 6, 2022 11:23 am

How many canaries can you fit in a coal mine ?!

First is was Arctic summer ice minimum. When that stopped declining they swiched to Antarctica. Then it Arctic in the winter ( but don’t mention the summer any more ) then there was pikas, then monarch butterflies and GBR, sea kelp, …..

One thing we are not going run out of is friggin canaries !!

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