International partners work together for tufted puffin research

Did you know that tufted puffins have nesting colonies here in Washington state? Tufted puffins are iconic seabirds that nest across the North Pacific Rim from California through British Columbia and Alaska to Japan. Roughly 80% of tufted puffin nesting colonies are in North America, mostly on Alaskan islands.

Puffins spend most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean but return to offshore islands and rocks where they dig nesting burrows in the soil with their feet and beaks. In their burrows, they lay a single egg per year and likely don’t start breeding until they are 3–4 years old. They spend the non-breeding season (Sept. — May) at sea.

Tufted puffin research

We (the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) worked collaboratively with researchers from Environment and Climate Change Canada, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and University of Puget Sound to examine tufted puffin population trends throughout their North American range, and we recently published a research article in Bird Conservation International summarizing our findings.

Puffin on the water adjacent to Smith Island. Photo by: Scott Pearson

Our analyses focused on tufted puffin counts and densities collected during the breeding season in the North American breeding range. To examine population trends throughout the tufted puffin’s North American range, we assembled 11 datasets that spanned 115 years (1905–2019). These datasets included at-sea density, encounter estimates, and at-colony burrow and bird counts. We assessed trends for the California Current, Gulf of Alaska, and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands large marine ecosystems.

Large marine ecosystems are relatively large regions (e.g., the California Current ecosystem extends from Mexico to British Columbia) that have distinct ocean floor topography, ocean currents, patterns of productivity, and species assemblages. Because historic data were available, we were able to examine whether declines were relatively recent or have been occurring for a long time.

Research findings

Our findings show long-term and nearly uniform population declines in the at-sea and colony-based surveys in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem, which includes California, Oregon, and Washington colonies. We also saw downward trends in most datasets from the Gulf of Alaska and British Columbia.

Researchers collecting puffin burrow density information on an Alaskan colony.

Data from four of the five colonies in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Large Marine Ecosystem in Alaska showed positive trends, and the fifth, by far the largest (> 100,000 birds), colony exhibiting no clear trend. These stable to positive trends are good news for the puffin because the Aleutian Islands have the largest puffin colonies in the world. The Bering Sea/Aleutian trends suggest that puffin populations in this area may be recovering or at least not declining after the banning of historic fishing practices that entangled tens of thousands of puffins. Also, the removal of introduced arctic foxes from nesting colonies may also be benefiting Aleutian puffin colonies.

Tufted puffin declines were greatest in Washington and Oregon with about half of the historically occupied colonies lost and populations that were estimated to be tens of thousands of birds historically declining to perhaps, just a few thousand birds — with steepest declines occurring in recent years.

You can read more about the research findings at Cambridge University Press.

Why are puffins declining throughout much of their nesting range?

Although not part of the study, declines may be attributed to a variety of factors that occurred in the past and some that are ongoing. Historical events include factors like fisheries bycatch, oil spills, and the introduction of non-native species like arctic foxes to nesting islands.

Today, tufted puffins seem to be particularly sensitive to warm water events that ultimately influence the populations of fish and other prey items that Puffins eat. These warm water events are occurring more frequently and last longer with increasing global temperatures.

How WDFW and partners are working together to help puffins

In our study, we recommended a better integrated monitoring strategy to assess puffin trends throughout the species’ range. To advance this goal, U.S. and Canadian scientists and biologists gathered last month in Alaska to initiate discussions and test methods for a North American monitoring strategy.

This same group of researchers are contributing to an ongoing study that is genetically examining how interconnected puffins are throughout its North American range, which has important implications for conservation strategies.

Puffin spreads its wings on Destruction Island. Photo by: Scott Pearson

WDFW recently published a state recovery plan and status review that identified the near-term conservation actions needed to benefit puffins. Those activities include research needs to better understand the factors driving declines; addressing introduced non-native species and habitat issues on Destruction and other islands; and designing survey strategies to track puffin recovery and the effectiveness of management actions. Alongside partner entities, WDFW conducts regular monitoring and research activities in Washington and is working on reducing threats and restoring habitat in one of the state’s primary puffin colonies.

How can you help tufted puffins?

Because nesting puffins are sensitive to human disturbance and all Washington’s puffin colonies are currently closed to public visitation, we ask people to stay off nesting colonies and give them a wide berth. Nearly all of Washington’s active puffin colonies are managed by US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex with a couple of colonies managed by the State and tribes.

Tufted puffin in flight. Photo by: Scott Pearson

In addition, when you see puffins on the water, please don’t approach closely and cause them to fly away, which can be energetically costly if they are being flushed regularly. Finally, because puffins are sensitive to the effects of warming ocean waters, anything that we can do to limit activities that contribute to climate change is helpful.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.