Puffin population may appear to be thriving, but more research needed, experts warn
The puffin population in Ireland may appear to be thriving, but more research is needed to assess how they are breeding, bird experts say.
According to the last available figures, there are an estimated 21,000 pairs of puffins in Ireland, which can mostly be seen along its west coast.
The comical looking birds can be viewed by the public on boat tours around Ireland’s Eye off the coast of Howth in Dublin and at the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare.
According to a study carried out on the puffin population on Sceilg Mhichil, located off the Co Kerry coast, 7,380 individual puffins were recorded on the slopes, flying over and loafing on the surrounding waters of the site on May 5 this year, followed by 8,236 the following evening.
Niall Hatch, Birdwatch Ireland’s head of communications, told the PA news agency that it was unclear exactly how many pairs of puffins there are currently in Ireland.
“We do know that Ireland is of international importance to puffins, we have some very large puffin colonies around the Irish coast. But more survey work needs to be done to see how their chicks are surviving,” he said.
Mr Hatch said that each pair of puffins produces just one chick, or one puffling, a year.
They nest in burrows under the ground, which makes it more difficult to count their population, compared with other seabirds that would nest on ledges out in the open.
“So the fact is that things may look well with puffins because we’re seeing lots of adults around, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the chicks are surviving and that they’re breeding successfully,” he said.
He said that climate change, unsustainable overfishing and the pollution of plastics in the sea, which can block the birds’ digestive systems, could also be affecting their breeding attempts.
As ocean temperatures warm, plankton can move further north to colder waters, which has more oxygen in it.
“Then the small fish follow the plankton and the small fish are the food that the puffins need to feed their chicks,” Mr Hatch told PA.
“So where it may be the case that the adult puffins can go out to sea and feed, they spend most of the year out in the mid Atlantic Ocean, they can find food out there well away from land, but their chicks are back on land.
“So if the fish end up too far away, it’s too far for the parents to bring fish back back to the chicks. And that’s thought to be a major reason why we’re seeing population collapses in many parts of the North Atlantic, and we still do not fully know the picture in Ireland.”
He said that it was understandable that members of the public would want to view the comical, cartoon-like bird, but said if they are they should do it in a “non-intrusive” way.
“Now we would urge people when they are going to look at puffins to do it in a way that doesn’t impact on them,” he said.
“They’re very appealing to people. There’s something very comical about about them, something very cute.
“That that sort of ‘clown makeup’ look they have on their face, those big beaks that they have – they almost look like a cartoon. Of course people really would like to see them.”
“There’s many ways to do that: around Dublin, getting a boat from Howth around Ireland’s Eye and watching the puffins in the water; and going to places like Sceilg Mhichil and seeing them on the rocks, but keeping your distance.
“One of the very best places in Ireland to see puffins without any impact on them at all would be the Cliffs of Moher.
“The Cliffs of Moher are home to thousands of puffins during the summer and they’re quite easy to see there, so that’s what we’d recommend.”
He added: “People should enjoy them, we’re keen for people to experience puffins as much as possible. But please remember that they’re not toys, they’re creatures that are frightened of us and we have to be careful not to disturb them.”
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said the last published population estimate of puffins on the island of Ireland comes from a book published in 2004, where it was estimated there was a breeding population of 21,000 pairs.
The NPWS’s Breeding Seabird Monitoring Programme has carried out a series of surveys of several seabird species, but it warned of the difficulty of counting the population as they nest in burrows and/or rock crevices.
“However work on increasing our level of understanding of this species is growing,” it said, citing a report into the puffin population on Sceilg Mhichil it had carried out this month.