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

Digital creator Kyana Sue Powers says residents of Vestmannaeyjar treat puffling season as a regular part of life. "It's just what you do, it's as normal to do as recycling cans," she told NPR.
Kyana Sue Powers
Digital creator Kyana Sue Powers says residents of Vestmannaeyjar treat puffling season as a regular part of life. "It's just what you do, it's as normal to do as recycling cans," she told NPR.

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.

Pufflings are released before the sun goes down, Powers said. Letting them go at night could cause them to fly back into town.
/ Kyana Sue Powers
/
Kyana Sue Powers
Pufflings are released before the sun goes down, Powers said. Letting them go at night could cause them to fly back into town.

Powers found out about puffling season while visiting Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, off the south coast of Iceland last summer. She was leaving a restaurant after dinner and noticed some strange behavior from children and adults carrying flashlights and boxes.

"People were just running around the streets, like into corners and sidewalks and stuff, frantically chasing things," she said.

Eventually, someone offered an explanation: They were on puffling patrol.

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.

Hundreds of adult puffins can be seen at the cliffs where pufflings are set free.
/ Kyana Sue Powers
/
Kyana Sue Powers
Hundreds of adult puffins can be seen at the cliffs where pufflings are set free.

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."

How to prepare for puffling season

The hardest step for most people eager to participate in puffling season will be traveling to a place where the seabird breeds.

The Westman Islands currently have the largest puffin colony, so its puffling season is popular. But the younglings need help wherever the birds breed in the North Atlantic.

Families often get their kids involved in patrolling for pufflings. Powers compared the atmosphere on the streets each night to Halloween.
/ Kyana Sue Powers
/
Kyana Sue Powers
Families often get their kids involved in patrolling for pufflings. Powers compared the atmosphere on the streets each night to Halloween.

The exact timing changes every year, based on factors like food supply. With fish as the main food source for puffins, the chicks take longer to grow when ocean temperatures negatively impact the population of herring or sandeel. That means they must leave the nest later in the season. This year, most fledglings were found in mid-September.

You can search for pufflings starting around 9 p.m. until as late as 3 a.m., and can hunt by foot, bike, car or even boat. Powers advises looking for them where there are the most lights, like harbors, golf courses, hospitals, schools, gas stations or construction sites. Some birds even end up in harbors, where boat oil in the water can weigh them down and cause them to drown, Powers said.

Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago of volcanic islands and rock stacks off the southern coast of Iceland.
/ Kyana Sue Powers
/
Kyana Sue Powers
Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago of volcanic islands and rock stacks off the southern coast of Iceland.

A flashlight can help find pufflings, which may be confused and trying to hide from potential predators. It's common to collect four to 10 in a night, Powers said.

Catalán recommends using gloves to pick them up, which protect the handler from avian flu, and the animal from the oil or chemicals on human skin. Then, they should be placed one bird to a box with some grass inside to help prevent feces from getting on them.

Puffling patrollers collect data each year for scientific purposes. People are encouraged to log the weight of each catch on a website.

There are a few techniques for releasing the seabirds at the "Beautiful Puffin and Shore View" cliffs the following day. The gentlest way is to place them on the ground and wait for them to fly off the cliff when they're ready.

"I don't see many people do this," Powers said, explaining that instead, most people toss them off the cliffs underhand. "Some people kind of hold it like a football with the wings out and then they shoot it – but you know, it's not aggressive, [the pufflings] are ready to go."

The population of Vestmannaeyjar is around 4,300, according to the website for the municipality, which is on the island Heimaey.
/ Kyana Sue Powers
/
Kyana Sue Powers
The population of Vestmannaeyjar is around 4,300, according to the website for the municipality, which is on the island Heimaey.

Powers, who is originally from Boston, said that locals don't seem to get too emotional while freeing the young puffins, but she does. This is her second year as part of puffling patrol.

"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," she said. "I'm always like, 'Bye buddy, have a great life, I can't wait to see you again.'"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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