NATURE NOTE – Number 77                                             September 28, 2023


This NATURE NOTE is a little different from most.  I recently read an article by an Associated Press* writer, Patrick Whittle, that is not only interesting from its own standpoint but serves to tie together a number of earlier NATURE NOTE topics.  Maybe we need to review those.  The specific animal discussed in the AP article is a little out of our council range, but bear with me as I write about…

Our Current Topic:  The Atlantic Puffin

Puffins are those funny-looking little seabirds with colorful beaks that stand upright and inhabit the cold, rocky coasts of Alaska, Canada, Iceland, northern Europe, and several islands along the coast of Maine. Those in Maine, like their worldwide cousins, eat fish.  Once hunted for their meat and feathers, puffins were almost totally gone in the early 1900’s before wildlife management was much of a profession (See NATURE NOTES # 8 & 14).  Only an estimated 70 pairs remained on Maine’s coast.  Several decades ago, attempts were made to supplement the population by bringing in Canadian puffins to the Maine colonies.  However, the population continued to decline.  In 2021 there was a major reduction in the number of puffins.  This was attributed to climate change and the warming of the ocean that affected the population of the small fish the puffins fed on.  However, something interesting happened in 2022, and was repeated in the 2023 data recently gathered. The Atlantic Puffin population had rebounded in large numbers.  The number of newly hatched puffins was way up. The small fish were in abundance again.  This seemed to take many of the scientists by surprise, and “flies in the face of environmental trends…” to quote the article.  The director of the Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute in Maine, Don Lyons, says “This year is a good example of how complex things are.  We can’t boil it down to one variable.  We still have a lot to learn.”  He went on to say that this is “a sign that the impact of climate change on ecosystems is not always as tidy as we think”.  (See NATURE NOTE # 75 about science is not static)   According to Lyons, there are now some 3000 of the birds and the population is stable and could be growing.  Other scientists are still urging caution as climate change still “…remains an existential threat to puffins and other seabirds”.  We still need to be concerned about reproduction failures of a species in certain years, for whatever reasons, says Dr. Boersma of the University of Washington, and “…make sure that in good years everyone that wants to has a chance to breed and do well“. 

None of this is intended to downplay the effects of climate change.  It appears to be real.  Some may argue the cause.  But the above article serves to emphasize the fact that “they” (the scientists) don’t always have the exact answer for nature’s changes, shifts, anomalies, and unexplained.  It also shows that there is great room for more exploration in the world of nature to pursue some of these answers.  (Think career paths for young people interested in nature.) It also shows that nature is very resilient as was discussed in NATURE NOTE # 30.  Given a fighting chance, animals will respond with increased reproduction and continue to do all they can to survive in their habitat, even when that habitat changes somewhat. 


So how do you as a scout leader use this information?  I’m not sure.  I think it is one of those little snippets of information that goes in your hip pocket or some cranny of your brain to pull out at the appropriate time and place when some scout – or other person – starts talking about how “we” are destroying the world and all the creatures in it and it is all doom and gloom.  Remind them of our continuing process of learning (we aren’t there yet in many cases), of the ability of nature to rebound when one part of it changes (for reasons we may not understand), and how we need to use some caution on everything we hear or think we know about nature (NATURE NOTE #75).  We are part of that great web of nature, and it many cases we are doing our best to understand it, improve it, and save it.  This is a much more positive spin than “the planet is doomed and it’s all because of us”.

Incidentally, another AP article by Tammy Webber, in the same newspaper*, discusses how scientists are working in the Midwest to help preserve grassland birds and how agriculture can adapt to practices that will allow it to work and benefit these birds as well.

As always, thanks for reading NATURE NOTES, and if you do nothing else with them, just think about them.  Keep being interested in the Atlantic Puffin and all of the rest of nature.

Bob Garst

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*Reference the Roanoke Times, September 3, 2023.