I haven’t seen puffins in real life very often, but they’re associated with the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, my home county. They’re a bird associated with more northern climes, and are enigmatic creatures.
It’s both sad and heartening to see that, to save them going extinct in Iceland, locals have to stop them wandering towards the bright lights of human civilization. Instead, they take the baby puffins, which are adorably called ‘pufflings’, and throw them off cliffs to encourage them to fly.
Natural evolution can’t happen as fast as humans are changing the world, so unless we want to see the absolute devastation of biodiversity on our planet, traditions such as this are going to have to become commonplace.
Watching thousands of baby puffins being tossed off a cliff is perfectly normal for the people of Iceland’s Westman Islands.
This yearly tradition is what’s known as “puffling season” and the practice is a crucial, life-saving endeavor.
The chicks of Atlantic puffins, or pufflings, hatch in burrows on high sea cliffs. When they’re ready to fledge, they fly from their colony and spend several years at sea until they return to land to breed, according to Audubon Project Puffin.
Pufflings have historically found the ocean by following the light of the moon, digital creator Kyana Sue Powers told NPR over a video call from Iceland. Now, city lights lead the birds astray.
Many residents of Vestmannaeyjar spend a few weeks in August and September collecting wayward pufflings that have crashed into town after mistaking human lights for the moon. Releasing the fledglings at the cliffs the following day sets them on the correct path.
This human tradition has become vital to the survival of puffins, Rodrigo A. Martínez Catalán of Náttúrustofa Suðurlands [South Iceland Nature Research Center] told NPR. A pair of puffins – which mate for life – only incubate one egg per season and don’t lay eggs every year.
“If you have one failed generation after another after another after another,” Catalán said, “the population is through, pretty much.”