Puffins dying in the UK too

27 03 2013

Thanks to Dennis Riordan down in Connecticut for tipping me off to a story out of Scotland where hundreds of puffins have been washing up on the beaches. Professor Mike Harris, writing on the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Science News blog reports that this puffin die-off will easily be the worst in 60 years. Tallies of the dead birds along the east coast of Scotland are running to the hundreds and could approach thousands before the counting is done.

Beached puffin found by the Hequembourgs on Cape Cod in February.

Beached puffin found by the Hequembourgs on Cape Cod in February.

The problem seems partly to be timing; the puffins are making their way back to the breeding colonies at this time of year, coming in closer to shore than they do during winter. This means that they are more likely to wash up on beaches when they die than during times of the year when they are far offshore. Razorbills have been found dead in large numbers on our own coasts and in Europe this year, but this is less unusual precisely because that species normally winters closer to shore. Only a handful of the sea-faring puffins are found dead in a typical year on each side of the Atlantic, but how much of the actual mortality that reflects if the birds usually sink far off at sea is unclear.

We are beginning post-mortem exams here in the states on almost 50 puffins collected from New England’s coastline, and our counterparts in Scotland are doing the same. So far, it looks like most of the dead in the UK are young birds that appear to have starved during this difficult winter. If that pattern holds, the breeding population may not be as severely impacted as it would be if most of the affected birds were breeding adults. We will see what age and sex patterns emerge from both sides of the Atlantic, and we will follow Professor Harris’ work with interest from here on out.

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6 responses

27 03 2013
capteagleeyes

Could it be the warm water? The Puffins in Maine were bringing in bigger fish than the chicks could swallow. That’s what I heard thru the friends who work with them in Maine.

29 03 2013
scourc01

The suspicion is that it was the harsh winter weather/storms/prolonged winds that are responsible. This is also consistent with the fact that more than one species is involved. But this note about the inappropriately sized prey fish is intriguing, and is a concern–as prey resources become less available, the birds may indeed resort to things that just won’t cut it.

28 03 2013
roberta4949

poor puffins, hope they find out why they are dying like that.

4 04 2013
Marcia Lyons

Is the harsh winter the likely reason for all the dead razorbills also?

5 04 2013
scourc01

That is the theory at this point. Harsh winds, frequent storms may have beaten the birds up. The potential role of decline of prey fish is also being hotly debated. So much mystery out there on the seas.

5 04 2013
Marcia Lyons

The first two dead RAZO I observed on Hatteras beaches this winter were in late December before the worst of the winter weather. So interesting about potential scarcity of prey debate. Thanks for info

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