The Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula artica) is one seabird nearly everyone can name. Their bright, stripey beaks and clown-like eyes have earned them a place in many wildlife-lover’s hearts, and earlier this year, they came 10th in David Lindo’s “Vote for Britain’s National Bird” campaign, rubbing shoulders with other familiar characters such as the kingfisher and the campaign winner, the robin. Approximately 10% of the world population of puffins can be found on our shores, with breeding colonies such as the Farne Islands, Bempton Cliffs and Skomer Island being popular places for the public to visit during the breeding months.
It comes as extremely sad news today that this species has been declared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “vulnerable to extinction”. The puffin has joined the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species along with the European turtle dove and pochard, all of which are now considered to be as threatened as the African elephant. There are now a total of eight UK species on the red list.
Puffins have a particularly low rate of reproduction, only laying a single egg per breeding season. Pair this with the fact that they are easily affected by environmental changes, such as the results of global warming and unsustainable fishing, and their slow breeding recovery rates after catastrophic pollution events, and it’s easy to see why their numbers are threatened. It may be hard news to swallow if you’ve ever been to one of Britain’s puffin colonies and seen the thousands of birds there, darting through the sky with beaks stuffed full of fish. In fact, according to the RSPB, there are an estimated 580,799 breeding pairs of puffins in the UK, but it isn’t the adult numbers that are the source of unease. The number of juvenile birds that go on to successfully breed is rapidly declining. Numbers elsewhere in Europe have been causing concern too. Around 80% of the European population is found in Norway and Iceland, but dramatic declines have been seen here since the millennium.
There are a number of different factors that may have led to this decline. Puffins eat large numbers of small fish such as sprats, herrings and sandeels and it is thought that, due to over-fishing of seas where these species are found, there simply isn’t enough food to go around. Many chicks starve before they have a chance to fledge from their burrows. The nesting colonies themselves are at huge risk from mink and rats, introduced predatory species that prey on ground-nesting animals. Puffins make their nests in underground burrows which leaves their eggs and chicks extremely vulnerable to predation by these introduced species.
The puffin is an amazing bird. They spend much of the year, outside of the breeding season, floating in large groups known as rafts on the open ocean and their waterproof feathers are adapted to help them survive the low temperatures during winter. This is why marine pollution, from huge oil spills for instance, can be so damaging to populations as the oil will neutralise their waterproofing, leaving them unable to stay warm in freezing waters.
It is clear that, once again, global warming, pollution and irresponsible fishing practices are heavily impacting our wildlife. Big changes need to be made on a grand scale, not just on our shores but across the planet. If factors remain the same, the IUCN “Extinct in the Wild” list will be looking a whole lot longer.
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