IMPACT

How Climate Change Threatens Iceland's Iconic Puffins

And the community that has gone from hunting and eating them, to rescuing them.
An oil-covered puffling gets a bubble bath to clean its feathers. 
An oil-covered puffling gets a bubble bath to clean its feathers. 

HEIMAEY, Iceland September is a time of little sleep for Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir. “It’s puffling season,” she says. “I’ll sleep in November.” 

Beyoncé plays on the radio as she and her sister Berglind drive up and down the streets of Vestmannaeyjar. Heimaey, meaning “home island,” is the only inhabited island in Iceland’s Westman Islands. It’s also home to the largest colony of Atlantic puffins in the world. 

Berglind slams on the brakes and throws the dark blue SUV into park in the middle of the road. Sandra Sif sprints toward a flash of fluff and comes back smiling. In her hand is a puffin chick ― called a puffling, or pysja in Icelandic. She places the black and white seabird, about the size of a soda can, carefully in a cardboard box in the trunk.  

Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir sprints after a puffling on the dock during a late-night puffin rescue trip.
Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir sprints after a puffling on the dock during a late-night puffin rescue trip.

On Heimaey, gas is about $9 a gallon, but that doesn’t stop the Sigvardsdóttir sisters from covering some serious ground between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. every night in September. “We don’t have to go to the gym in September,” she jokes. They are the top puffling rescuers on the island. This year, they beat their all-time season high, saving 261 pufflings stranded in the streets.

The siblings are part of the Puffling Patrol (Pysjueftirlitið), an island-wide volunteer rescue program launched in 2003. 

Puffins have traditionally been hunted for food in Iceland ― and still are. But in the Westman Islands, residents’ relationship with these iconic birds is changing. On Heimaey, a centuries-long tradition of hunting puffins has shifted to a culture of conservation.  

An adult puffin in Iceland flies with a fish in its mouth. Even though the seabirds seem plentiful, the country's puffin popu
An adult puffin in Iceland flies with a fish in its mouth. Even though the seabirds seem plentiful, the country's puffin population has been declining dramatically.

There are an estimated 870,000 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins in the Westman Islands, but they are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ― meaning they are at high risk of extinction. The population in Iceland declined by 45.6% between 2003 and 2017, according to Erpur Snær Hansen, director of ecological research at Náttúrustofa Suðurlands (South Iceland Nature Research Center).

Experts say this is due to a mix of factors including hunting, overfishing and pollution ― but perhaps the most important is climate change. 

Warming ocean temperatures have reduced puffin numbers “tremendously fast,” mainly by reducing their prey, says Hansen. Puffins’ main prey varies regionally ― from sand eel in the south and west to capelin in the cold northern waters ― but dining options are becoming more limited as warming sea temperatures affect the availability of their prey.

The number of breeding Atlantic puffin pairs that successfully rear a chick is generally very low in multiple colonies in Iceland, with few chicks surviving until fledging, says Annette Fayet, a junior research fellow at the University of Oxford who has been studying puffins since 2011. The main reason “seems to be a lack of food during breeding,” she says. “If this continues for a long time, the populations will continue to decline and may not be able to bounce back.”

Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir hands a puffling to her youngest daughter, Eva Berglind, 2, sitting next to her cousin and o
Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir hands a puffling to her youngest daughter, Eva Berglind, 2, sitting next to her cousin and older sister. Puffling Patrol volunteers take a photo of each kid with their rescued pufflings.

Every year, pufflings emerge from their burrows in September, after their parents have left for Greenland. The young birds head for the moonlit sea but often get confused and fly toward the lights in town (much like sea turtle hatchlings in Florida that crawl toward bright lights on the peninsula rather than the ocean). This can be fatal because the disoriented pufflings’ wings are too small to fly safely back to the sea.  

The plight of these pufflings has motivated children and adults alike to spend nights scooping up the baby birds stranded in town and stashing them in boxes, where they will spend the rest of the evening in homes, garages and cars until they can be delivered the next day to the makeshift Puffling Patrol headquarters in the garage of the Sea Life Trust building. 

Once the birds have been weighed, measured and tagged, many can be released. Their tiny wings are good for swimming, but they need a lot of vertical distance to get enough lift for takeoff. In the late afternoon, kids congregate precariously close to the edge of the cliffs. Gently cupping a tiny bird in closed hands, they pump the bird three times, releasing it on the third swing toward the sky. This simulates flying and signals for the puffling to start flapping its wings. 

Sóldis Sif releases a puffling at the cliffs. Their wings are small meaning they must be launched into the air to get
Sóldis Sif releases a puffling at the cliffs. Their wings are small meaning they must be launched into the air to get enough lift for takeoff.

An increasing number of pufflings, however, cannot be released right away because they are covered in oil from the polluted harbor. There is only one tiny entrance to the harbor, which is home to five fish processing plants, plus cruise ships, ferries and fishing boats. Over the course of just two days in September 2019, they received 100 oiled birds at the Puffling Patrol headquarters, matching the total number in 2018. 

Oil soaks the pufflings’ feathers and causes them to lose their waterproofing, which is critically important for seabirds. If they are oiled, “the feathers will be soaked and they will get heavier and heavier ― and especially because the water is so cold, they will just sink,” says Margrét Magnúsdottir, biologist and former curator of the science museum in Vestmannaeyjar.

An oiled puffling gets a bubble bath.
An oiled puffling gets a bubble bath.

Karen Velas specializes in oiled birds. She learned to waterproof birds during the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill in California while working for Audubon, and she joined Magnúsdottir and the Puffling Patrol in 2017. She has since trained several volunteers on Heimaey to clean and care for these birds. They work long hours in a lab shared with fish researchers and piled with boxes of pufflings waiting to be fed and washed. Some of the boxes are huddled under lamps to keep the pufflings warm after their baths, which involve toothbrushes and dish soap. 

It’s all a world of difference from even a generation ago, says Magnúsdottir. “When I was growing up, and especially when my father was growing up, we did not have many sources of food,” she says. “There were no chickens or anything like that. We had to eat what the island brought ― the fish, the eggs, the puffins. So it was a matter of survival.” 

Margrét Magnúsdottir feeds a puffling in the lab.
Margrét Magnúsdottir feeds a puffling in the lab.

Hunting puffins is not unique to Iceland ― many Nordic countries still hunt seabirds. Puffins were hunted almost to extinction in the U.S. in the 19th century; by 1900, only two isolated colonies of puffins remained in the Gulf of Maine. The only reason the birds are on Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock today is that conservationists moved puffin chicks from a large colony in Newfoundland in the 1970s.  

In the late 1990s, puffin hunting peaked in the Westmans at about 250,000 caught annually, says Hansen. Puffin hunting is still allowed in Iceland. On Grímsey, for example, a small island off Iceland’s northern coast, 5,000 to 10,000 birds are hunted per year out of a 30,000-bird colony.

But between 1995 and 2018, hunting declined by about 90% across the country. This fall is in part because of the drop in the puffin population. But there has also been government intervention. In response to several years of “breeding catastrophes” in the Westman Islands ― where chicks did not have enough body weight to survive ― authorities limited the local hunting season.

But even during the open hunting days in the Westman Islands, many hunters no longer take part, says Hansen. “I didn’t anticipate it, but I’m hearing more and more voices from all directions saying that this massive killing, which is basically tradition here, is never going to be the same as it was,” he says. 

“The catch now is 300 or 400 birds [per year in the Westman Islands]; it’s just peanuts,” says Hansen. In 2019, instead of participating in hunting, many community members chose to rescue pufflings. The Puffling Patrol rescued 7,627 pufflings over the year. 

Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir releases a puffling from the cliffs with her 2-year-old daughter Eva Berglind.
Sandra Sif Sigvardsdóttir releases a puffling from the cliffs with her 2-year-old daughter Eva Berglind.

More than half of the community participates in the Puffling Patrol. Besides rescuing record numbers of pufflings on Heimaey, the Sigvardsdóttir sisters are also mothers and work full time, Sandra Sif at the steel factory and Berglind at the hospital. Their kids, and others island-wide, are often asleep during their parents’ late-night puffling excursions, but some nights they get to help with the search. 

“They are allowed to be sleepy the day after,” says Soffía Baldursdóttir, who taught kindergarten in Vestmannaeyjar for 22 years and now volunteers with the Puffling Patrol. “It’s OK, we understand ― because they are saving the puffins.”

Baldursdóttir says the kids on the island are around 3 or 4 years old when they start to help with the rescue. These kids are growing up learning about pufflings hands-on and building a connection with the wildlife in their community, and Baldursdóttir says they’re never going to forget that. “Those are my favorite times with my daughter ― the puffling times,” she says.  

Karen Velas holds a fluffy puffling before releasing it at the cliffs at sunset.
Karen Velas holds a fluffy puffling before releasing it at the cliffs at sunset.

But personal connection and protection simply may not be enough. Both the community and hunting regulations now protect puffins, but if warming sea surface temperatures cause fewer fish to be available to parents when feeding their chicks, the chicks may not be strong enough to survive the season, even after they are rescued. 

“No one knows whether the population will be resilient enough,” says Fayet. “I think it depends how long the lack of food will go on for.” 

Just a few hours away in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, puffins are served as food. It’s a sharp dichotomy with the shops next door selling puffin paraphernalia and tour agencies advertising puffin sightseeing trips. Velas’ nonprofit Puffin Preservation Society has an initiative called “take the puffin off the plate,” which educates people about the impacts of eating puffins. 

For now, the community is hopeful that its role as puffin protectors will help. And in the context of the broader biodiversity crisis across the world ― with human actions predicted to wipe out up to 1 million species over the next decade if we fail to act ― experts see lessons in the work they’re doing.

“The transition from hunting to conservation on Heimaey is a wonderful example of local community action, and stories like this are repeated around the world,” says Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International. The U.S., for example, has volunteer Salamander Crossing Guards in New Hampshire, Manatee Watch volunteers in Florida, and volunteers on the Gulf of Mexico who stay up all night to direct sea turtle hatchlings to the sea. 

“Not only will they make a conservation difference locally,” says Fayet, “but they also engage people with wildlife, nature and conservation, and ... they make more people care about our planet, which is essential to tackle the climate crisis.” 

“However,” she warns, “we cannot rely on these efforts alone to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis affecting the planet. Change must come from all levels, including governments and industries.”

Travel support for this story was provided by the Resilience Journalism Fellowship program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

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