Puffins aplenty in Newfoundland despite struggling to survive globally

Photo from CP.

Puffins are at risk of extinction in the U.K., but you’ll see plenty of the funny-looking seabirds if you head to Newfoundland and Labrador, where they can be found by the hundreds of thousands.

A quarter of the bird species in the U.K. are struggling for survival, according to a report released Tuesday, and the Atlantic puffin is among them.

The Atlantic puffin, which breeds in Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Newfoundland and other North Atlantic islands, was classified as vulnerable to extinction globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2015 because of high breeding failures at colonies. The species was added to the U.K. “red list” of endangered animals this week.

Ninety per cent of the Atlantic puffin’s global population is found in Europe (up to 5.7 million breeding pairs) with 60 per cent of the population in Iceland alone. But there are an estimated 300,000 breeding pairs found off the coast of Newfoundland in the four islands of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve near St. John’s, which is home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America.

The puffin’s romanticism may cause some of the species’ breeding woes: the birds form lifelong mating pairs, laying a single egg each season with the male and female birds sharing egg-warming and chick-rearing duties. As some puffin mating areas become habitats for mammals such as rats, breeding rates decrease and puffin populations, though large and spread over a wide area, are reduced.

Light pollution is another threat to these birds as puffins use the moon, stars and horizon to navigate. Lights appearing on shores can confuse puffins and lead them to land instead of the open ocean. On land near the ecological reserve, the Puffin and Petrel Patrol rescues puffins that find themselves lost and stranded. Members of this program release these creatures back to the water the morning after they are found.

As the province’s official bird, puffins have become something of a mascot for Newfoundland and Labrador. You can find piles of plush puffins for sale in souvenir shops in downtown St. John’s and several tour operators offer tourists the chance to see the birds at sea on boat trips during the peak breeding season, which runs from late spring to late summer.

There’s even a plush puffin named Buddy that serves as the mascot for the St. John’s Ice Caps, the local American Hockey League team.

And if you’re looking to give smoked puffin a try, you’ll have to hop on a flight to Iceland because it’s illegal to hunt or eat puffins in Newfoundland and Labrador.