Rescuing Puffins in Iceland

 

Or, How I found myself at the top of a cliff in a strange country holding a bird in my hands.

Puffins are true sea birds – the first thing young puffins do when they leave their cliffside nests is fly out to the ocean. They live there for three years before they ever come back to dry land, floating and diving for fish. They have to be in the water to survive, and they have only one chance to get there. Young puffins (“pufflings”) that land on the ground are doomed because at that age they can’t get airborn again. They will die from starvation or predation unless humans rescue them and get them to the sea.

This happens in a number of places around the North Atlantic, but Ground Zero for puffin rescue is Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland. This is a town of about 4000 on a little island just south of “mainland” Iceland, which has perfect seaside cliffs all around it. Puffins by the millions dig burrows above the cliffs, and in late August/early September the pufflings venture out of their burrows in the middle of the night. They step over the cliffs and fly for the first time, heading toward the light of the stars and moon, and landing on the water.

Unless, that is, they get distracted by the lights of the town, fly in the wrong direction, and land on the ground. Thousands of them will land in the town and need rescuing, and the town has embraced this task. Every night during this time, everywhere you look, people will be driving around slowly or walking with flashlights, looking for lost pufflings.

My wife learned about this many years ago from a children’s book, Nights of the Pufflings. She’s been entranced by the idea ever since, and we decided it was time we went there and helped out. So we spent the first week of September in Vestamnnaeyjar, along with one of our nieces who wanted to help (and didn’t mind missing a week of Senior Year).

The Hunt

We headed out every night at 11 or midnight, armed with flashlights and cardboard boxes, and spent two or three hours poking around. We looked in a lot of places, but spent most of our time around the golf course west of town. It’s near some cliffs and there are lights along the road that attract the pufflings. We’d find the little guys wandering around the course, or in a sand trap, or huddled by buildings. We had to chase and grab them. This isn’t easy – they can’t fly off the ground, but they can flap their wings and run pretty fast! This is where it helped having a 17-year-old along. When we did catch them, we’d put them in the cardboard boxes for safekeeping.

They didn’t like being in the boxes! Some of them scratched at them and fluttered and did their best to get out. We had to tape the boxes shut to keep them in.

Only once did we fail to find any, and even then natives who had more than they needed gave us a couple (pity puffins)! We didn’t know that puffling sharing was a thing, but it is. The most we found was 14 in one night, and we gave one of those away to a little girl who was out with her grandfather. Our niece saved one from a cat who was stalking it. All told, we found about 50 pufflings during the week.

The Check-in

A local science museum, part of the Sea Life Trust, measures and tags the pufflings to gather data. So the day after the hunt, we would take our boxes down to the center, along with all the other people. Staff and volunteers would weigh the pufflings (usually 250–300 grams) and measure the last segment of their wings (40–50 mm). A selection of the pufflings got a leg tag.

One day they processed 812 pufflings, and the total this year is over 7,000, the most since they’ve been doing this.

After the pufflings are processed, children (and adults) can pose for pictures with them.

You can see these on their Facebook page – lots and lots of pictures of little blonde children proudly holding the puffins they saved. (Note most of the text is in Icelandic!)

The Release

Then it’s time to release the pufflings and get them into the ocean, which means taking them to a cliff and tossing them over the side. We released most of ours by that golf course – sometimes there was a line of families with boxes of birds and we had to wait our turn. When we did this, the wife and niece decided that we had to give each bird a name and announce it during the release, so I said things like, “This is Dumpling!” as I tossed mine.

Standing a couple of feet from a sheer cliff and tossing pufflings is a little scary, and it’s even scarier to watch little children do this, but the parents hang on to them and no one went over the edge with the birds while we were there. A couple of times people stood too far back and failed to get the pufflings over the edge and they landed short. But the birds knew what to do – they walked over to the edge and jumped off. It actually made me wonder why we were throwing them – couldn’t we just set them down at a safe distance (for us) from the cliff and let them figure it out? But there’s no arguing with tradition, so the puffling toss continues.

The wife wants to go back another time and do this again. I kind of feel that once is enough. We’ll see.

If anyone wants to go next year and pay for a guide, I know where to find one!

Last year the BBC did a report on this, which is pretty good except for the usual alarmism. The BBC was there again this year and interviewed my niece, but I can’t find the video online. If I do, I’ll update this.

By the way, one funny thing about puffins is that the little ones look nothing like the adults, with their colorful beaks and somewhat comical appearance:

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There are 19 comments.

  1. Stad Thatcher

    What a wonderful thing to do!

    Don’t take any selfies on those cliffs. People have a way of falling off . . .

    • #1
    • September 15, 2019, at 10:53 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Vance Richards Member

    Fascinating. Probably the only example I have ever seen where throwing an animal off a cliff constitutes a “rescue.”

    • #2
    • September 15, 2019, at 12:14 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge

    Matt Bartle: Only once did we fail to find any, and even then natives who had more than they needed gave us a couple (pity puffins)

    Pity puffins. Loved that.

    Thanks for sharing this. Sounds like something I would like to do.

    • #3
    • September 15, 2019, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Old Bathos Member

    I would hate to be one of the puffins to get a leg tag. For the rest of your life others puffins would see that and know you were too dumb to notice the ocean and had to be carried there.

    Spending winters in the North Atlantic? Must be tough little critters.

    It would interesting to track whether the offspring of wrong-way puffins were any more likely to head into town instead of the water.

    Do Icelanders still eat puffins? They don’t look particularly tasty. And their population seems to be down.

    • #4
    • September 15, 2019, at 12:28 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  5. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    There’s a short season when you can hunt puffins for eating. I’m not sure how many people actually do that. I didn’t see them on any local restaurant menus!

    • #5
    • September 15, 2019, at 12:37 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. tigerlily Member

    Thanks Matt. Before reading your post, if I’d been asked what a Puffin was, I’d have had no idea although I probably would have guessed it was some sort of pastry.

    • #6
    • September 15, 2019, at 1:03 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    Another thing I learned is that translating Icelandic to English is tough, even for the mighty Google. Today’s Facebook post from the Sea Life Trust center is translated thusly:

    “There were 102 sweaters added to the sweater inspection today and the total number of swimsuits has come to 7359. The swimsuits have decreased rapidly in recent days. Yesterday’s bad weather may have had some effect, but it is clear that the boy’s time is running out this time. One of the smallest boys came in today and it was only 134 grams. She needs to improve only before she leaves for departure.”

    • #7
    • September 15, 2019, at 1:52 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. RightAngles Member

    Wow!

    • #8
    • September 15, 2019, at 3:15 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    I was not aware of this. Thanks for letting me know. There maybe trips in our future.

    • #9
    • September 15, 2019, at 3:20 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    A couple comments on the BBC video:

    • The science museum has a new location this year, so the puffling check-in room is different.
    • We met the woman who talks about it being a record year. She was on the ferry back to the mainland and released a couple pufflings from the ship. So did we.
    • The scientist peering into the nests is the same guy seen tagging the pufflings in the picture above, so we met him, too.
    • The puffin release is at almost exactly the same place we went to by the golf course.
    • They name their pufflings, too!
    • For some unknown reason, the children think they have to wind up with three practice swings before releasing the pufflings. We decided this was completely unnecessary and tossed them in one go.
    • #10
    • September 15, 2019, at 3:53 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. Doctor Robert Member

    Is this really a rescue, or are these puffins who would in nature be Darwin award winners?

    • #11
    • September 15, 2019, at 5:19 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Funny, a lady I used to work with has a side gig translating Icelandic into English, mostly literature I think. I’ll mention it to her next time I see her.

    And my grad school adviser spent a year every four years in Iceland on an exchange between their University and U of Minnesota. She loved the place. It looks very beautiful. Thanks for this.

    • #12
    • September 15, 2019, at 5:28 PM PDT
    • Like
  13. Skyler Coolidge

    I lived in Iceland for two years from mid ’75 to mid ’77. This looks like a great reason to go back!

    I always like the Puffins and the terns.

    • #13
    • September 15, 2019, at 5:28 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Is this really a rescue, or are these puffins who would in nature be Darwin award winners?

    Hmm. Maybe all we’re doing is lowering the average IQ of the puffin population. 

    My wife has a different response: “How dare you?”

    • #14
    • September 15, 2019, at 5:29 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Is this really a rescue, or are these puffins who would in nature be Darwin award winners?

    Hmm. Maybe all we’re doing is lowering the average IQ of the puffin population.

    My wife has a different response: “How dare you?”

    Hah!

    But she got her puffins…. (:

    • #15
    • September 15, 2019, at 9:15 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  16. WilliamDean Coolidge

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Is this really a rescue, or are these puffins who would in nature be Darwin award winners?

    He mentioned that it seems the lights and sound of the nearby city is confusing the birds, causing them to fly in the wrong direction and just generally screwing with their navigation. This seems a reasonable mitigation of a hindrance caused by our development in the area.

    • #16
    • September 15, 2019, at 11:01 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Doctor Robert Member

    WilliamDean (View Comment):

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    Is this really a rescue, or are these puffins who would in nature be Darwin award winners?

    He mentioned that it seems the lights and sound of the nearby city is confusing the birds, causing them to fly in the wrong direction and just generally screwing with their navigation. This seems a reasonable mitigation of a hindrance caused by our development in the area.

    Agreed. I just always act cautiously when interfering with natural processes and animal behavior. 

    • #17
    • September 16, 2019, at 3:11 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    As a point of comparison, here’s another Puffin Patrol, this one in Newfoundland:

    https://cpawsnl.org/puffinpetrelpatrol/

    And how many pufflings did they rescue this year? 300!

    • #18
    • September 16, 2019, at 5:55 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Post author

    Video of the puffin toss:

    • #19
    • September 17, 2019, at 5:29 AM PDT
    • 2 likes