Puffin Chicks in the Gulf of Maine are Starving to Death

August 25, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: Public domain

Fish shortage in the Gulf of Maine leaves puffin parents unable to provide for their growing chicks.

Most Atlantic puffin chicks hatched on Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine this year have starved to death, in what the Portland Press Herald describes as their “worst breeding season ever recorded.”

Tony Diamond, director of the Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research at the University of New Brunswick, believes the puffin chicks are currently suffering because the small fish on which they feed have been in short supply. The fish decline can be attributed to warming ocean waters, which hold lower levels of dissolved oxygen, leading aquatic creatures to swim to greater depths.

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Puffin parents normally forage for fish to feed to their fledglings. Their colorful beaks can hold many small fish at once, which the puffins carry back to their burrows. But this summer, puffins have been returning empty-beaked.

As a result, only around 12 percent of the chicks on the island survived past six weeks this year, whereas roughly 60 percent make it past that point in typical years.

"Normally those birds have no down on them and they're over 300 grams. The average weight this year was 190 grams," Diamond told CBC. "Essentially that cohort is toast."

About 5,500 puffin pairs breed on Machias Seal Island, and according to Diamond, the birds, which can live longer than 30 years, will lay an egg every year. This means one bad year won’t necessarily spell disaster for the population.

However, as CBC reports, 2013 was another tough year for puffins on the island, with only 15 percent of chicks fledging. If the trend continues, the puffins’ situation may become dire.

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