Take on Nature: Atlantic puffin, 'little friar of the north', is now on red list

Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) on Mykines, Faroe Islands
Stephen Colton

THE recently published ‘Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland (BoCCI) 2020-2026' review paper, jointly compiled by RSPB NI and BirdWatch Ireland, uses a ‘traffic light' system to indicate the conservation status of bird species by placing them on three lists – red, of high conservation concern, amber, of medium and green, of low conservation concern.

?The report's stark findings reveal that a quarter (25.6 per cent) or 54 of the 211 bird species studied on the island, are now red listed – more birds than ever before.

Gillian Gilbert, RSPB NI, one of the report's authors said: "It is extremely alarming to see a quarter of bird species on the island of Ireland now on the red list."

One newly red-listed bird is the Atlantic Puffin, often called the ‘clown of the sea' because of its colourful flattened beak, large white cheeks around sorrowful eyes and its bright orange legs.

Fratercula arctica's flamboyant colouring and parrot-like appearance are more suggestive of a tropical bird than one which breeds along our coastal cliffs each summer.

Observing these members of the auk family over 35 years ago on Goat Island off the Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, with their shuffling gait and stuttering landings, did much to help cement my then emerging interest in birds. The Atlantic or common puffin breeds along North Atlantic coasts with strongholds in Norway and Iceland but there are also significant colonies around Ireland and Britain.

Main breeding sites here are along the west coast, with some on the east and, much closer, Rathlin Island has an impressive colony at its West Light Seabird Centre.

Puffins spend most of their lives on the open sea, only returning to land to breed from April through to July, when they nest in deep burrows on sea stacks or offshore islands, avoiding mammalian predators like mink or rats. Rarely changing partners, they return to the same nesting site annually, investing all their shared energy to raise just one ‘puffling' chick.

Stockily built and just 20cm tall, puffins are strong, rapid fliers, their short wings adapted to help them power underwater in search of sand eels and sprats, which are often seen held in their beaks as they return from foraging.

Puffin comes from the old English word meaning swollen or fat and related to young Manx shearwaters once known as ‘Manks puffins'. In Irish folklore, puffins were reincarnations of Celtic monks, their black-and-white plumage resembling monastic robes, while in the Faroe Islands they are called prestur, from Old Norse prestr for priests.

The genus Fratercula, from the Latin frater for ‘little brother' or ‘monk' also points to the bird's likeness to a friar. Irish names include Puifín, straight from the English but also Gobachán, ‘a beak-nosed person' or ‘chatterer' both appropriate for the bird with its triangular beak and growling calls.

Like many cliff-nesting birds, puffins were a valuable food source in coastal districts around Ireland and elsewhere. Boag and Alexander in The Atlantic Puffin (1986) note, "as early as 1337, the Scilly Isles were rented annually for 6 shillings and 8 pence. The alternative to this payment was to supply 300 puffins". Although still hunted in Iceland and the Faroe Islands as part of customary sea harvest for local communities, most countries now give puffins full protection.

I suspect the activities of modern man, rather than traditional hunting of puffins, are contributing to the bird's vulnerable status, as climate change and warming oceans drive its diet of fish further northwards from our shores.

When circumstances allow, I hope to reacquaint myself with this little friar of the north.

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