Puffling Patrol

The Atlantic Puffin loves rocky coasts. Cliffs on remote islands without natural predators provide wonderful nesting habitats for these birds. Puffins inhabit a wide swath of land from North America to Europe and northward toward the Arctic Circle. Despite this wide home base, puffins really love one place above all others: Iceland. More than 60% of all Atlantic puffins live in Iceland!

Even among this puffin paradise, the birds flock to a few special locations. Off the southern coast of Iceland sit the Westman Islands, an archipelago natively known as Vestmannaeyjar. The largest single spit of this group is Heimaey. This island’s 5.2 square miles are home to about 4,500 humans. Every summer, Heimaey’s population blooms, however, with up to 8 million puffins!

English Map of the Vestmannaeyjar - graphic by P.S. Burton and Pinpin
Aerial view of Heimaey Island - photo by Bruce McAdam
Vestmannaeyjar harbour, Heimaey - photo by Diego Delso
Puffin Heaven - photo by Diego Delso

Despite the proximity to a gaggle of humans, who have sometimes hunted puffins for subsistence, the birds continue to congregate on Heimaey because the humans have done so sustainably. In general, Icelanders bestow puffins with a certain sort of reverence, allowing both species to thrive.

This harmony does not mean everything is perfect, however.

Only 4,500 people live on the island, but this figure is enough to bestow some negative qualities of humanity upon the birds. We have the unique ability to endow the planet’s flora and fauna with an array of pollution types, but one that is often overlooked is light pollution. Organizations such as the United Nations, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Audubon Society, and Dark Sky International paint a somber picture of the effect of human lighting on other species. Fireflies have problems getting the mating signals out there because of artificial light; tree frogs and other nocturnal critters have their rhythms and lifestyles thrown off by artificial light; birds and butterflies find it difficult to migrate because their traditional guiding senses and touchstones are affected by artificial light; baby sea turtles, drawn to a bright horizon above the ocean, might head inward toward lighted settlements instead of the sea.

Puffins are no exception. And just 4,500 people can create a problem for many on Heimaey.

The citizens of Heimaey revere puffins - photo by Chris Linder

When chicks hatch on Heimaey, sometimes they are lured toward the human populations by artificial lighting, instead of heading toward the shining moon and the safety of the ocean. The wings of young puffins are just strong enough to jettison from lofty cliffs; if they happen to head into a settlement, however, they might never be strong enough to correct their mistake. After the advent of electricity, the people of Heimaey began to notice wayward visitors to their hamlets.

So, the humans of this remote island began to help the baby puffins. When a chick meanders into town, someone picks up the young bird, takes it to the cliff precipice, and launches them over the edge!

Capturing the youngsters - photo by Kyana Sue Powers
Fly, young one - photo by Kyana Sue Powers

This odd method of aid has become so ingrained in the lives of those on Heimaey that they form puffin patrols each year. Volunteers scour the streets of the town for lost puffins, ushering them toward the sea.

In 1995, children’s author Bruce McMillan created a famous illustrated book about the tradition, called Nights of the Pufflings. The tome garnered a slew of awards upon publication, but, perhaps more importantly, it established the word “pufflings.” This term for a puffin chick cannot be found in any technical lexicon but people around the globe have adopted the adorable term. Now, Icelanders don’t have to simply go on a puffin patrol; they can embark upon the far more interesting endeavor of the puffling patrol.

American Kyana Sue Powers visited the island in 2021. After leaving a restaurant, she noticed some odd behavior from the locals. “People were just running around the streets, like into corners and sidewalks and stuff, frantically chasing things,” she told NPR. She had stumbled upon puffling patrols and she happily joined the cause. Powers described the Icelanders as helping the birds without a sense of emotion as if it’s old hat and simply the right thing to do. For her, sentiment ran high. “It’s a great feeling because you just rescued this little guy. And when you bring him to the cliff – it’s the first time in his life he’s seeing the ocean, and he’s gonna live there for the next few years.”

Puffling patrols are a wonderful example of the stewardship with which we can and should engage. Earth is one giant biome; each inhabitant plays a role in a planet-sized web. If we negatively impact other creatures, it benefits us to help.

Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. How often does the right thing provide the thrill of tossing cute baby birds over gorgeous cliffs? That’s a win-win! After the success of puffling patrols in Iceland, people across the breeding grounds of puffins have begun to mimic this tradition. In a world where many humans too often look the other way, sometimes we can inspire pride!

Further Reading and Exploration

Nights of the Pufflings by Bruce McMillan

Iceland is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of puffins – Iceland on the Web

5 Species Threatened by Light Pollution – Dark Sky International

Dim the Lights for Birds at Night! – U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

An Icelandic Town Goes All Out to Save Baby Puffins – Smithsonian Magazine

Why it’s perfectly normal to see baby puffins thrown off cliffs in Iceland each year – NPR

Puffin and Petrel Patrol – Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

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