By thinking like a social bird, Stephen Kress brought puffins back to the United States.
First things first: Puffins are adorable. You don’t have to be an animal lover to be charmed by their clownish faces, their waddling walk, and their chubby-dumpling bodies. Their fluffy chicks make even hardened cynics coo. (Really. They’re irresistible.)
Every summer on the Maine coast, tourists pile into ferry boats to tour the small, rocky islands where Atlantic puffins nest. As they ogle the birds through binoculars, they hear that puffins are not only cute but also tough: Though wobbly on land, puffins can dive down 200 feet underwater, and they swim so expertly that people once believed them to be a cross between a bird and a fish. Adult puffins return to their home islands every summer to breed and carefully tend a single chick, often pairing with the same mate year after year. Never underestimate a puffin.
But Atlantic puffins were once driven to near-extinction in the United States by hunting and egg collecting. The busy colonies off the Maine coast today are the result of a long-running restoration project. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to turn a heretical idea into the noisy, messy, thriving reality of the Maine puffin colonies—and it takes even more work to keep that reality in place.
In 1969, a young biologist and birding enthusiast named Stephen Kress moved to Maine to teach at the Hog Island Audubon Camp on the coast. He learned that puffins had once been common on the coastal islands but had been hunted relentlessly. By 1901, a single pair was left in the state, and only a few pairs had been seen since. Unlike many people in Maine at the time, Kress had a visceral sense of what had been lost: He had recently worked in eastern Canada, which has some of the largest puffin colonies in the world. He started to wonder if Atlantic puffin chicks could be transplanted from Canada to Maine and used to re-establish the population south of the border.