For the Birds Radio Program: Birds in the News: Puffins

Original Air Date: Sept. 2, 2004

The Wall Street Journal tells an exciting story about Atlantic Puffins and how children in Iceland rescue them. Of course, they were scooped by children’s book author Bruce McMillan, who wrote Nights of the Pufflings in 1995.

Audio missing


Birds in the News: September 2, 2004

This week, birds made front page news in the Wall Street Journal, where Ellen Schultz wrote a story about Atlantic Puffins on the island of Vestmannaeyjar off southern Iceland. Puffins are a staple on the menu of restaurants there—they apparently taste rather like fishy liver—and each summer, local hunters net tens of thousands of adult puffins. But in the same way that American hunters kill White-tailed Deer, but the hunters and their children both would rescue a fawn if they found it in trouble, Icelandic children rescue baby puffins that are in trouble. Every year puffins lay their single egg in a burrow dug into the high reaches of north Atlantic islands. When the egg hatches, the parents bring beaks filled with fish to feed the baby, who stays inside the burrow for a few weeks. When it’s time to fledge, close to a full moon, baby puffins emerge from their burrows at night time, and waddle to where they can see the moonlit ocean water sparkling, and they jump, fluttering their tiny wings madly. Unfortunately, as remote islands become settled, city lights below the puffins sparkle, too, and the babies crash into towns instead of the ocean, and so in a long-standing tradition in Iceland, children save up cardboard boxes, and on nights when the Pufflings emerge, the kids stay up late on a search and rescue mission.

According to the article, “Crashing into buildings, they can die on impact or get eaten by cats, but often they are merely stunned. Puffling rescue is so popular here that many adults who have moved away return each year with their kids. “It’s the time of year when we wouldn’t go on a holiday,” said Mr. Gudjonsson. As they cruised past a cargo container, a cry went up: a puffling by a Dumpster. But some bigger kids beat them to it. Nearby, a family with a hysterical terrier had staked out a prime corner bordering the wharf. Soon, a puffling streaked from the sky like a fluffy meteor, vainly trying to navigate. The kids surged forward, but the other family got to the bird first. The next afternoon, the kids headed off to the western shore, where a steady stream of cars arrived, each unloading small kids carrying cardboard boxes. Just south of the golf course that spreads across the crater of an extinct volcano, the Olafsson squad hauled their boxes to a favored launch point on the crowberry and turf-covered cliffs. They hurled the birds toward the sea. The pufflings took off like missiles and vanished quickly into the distance. “Bless,” the children called.” The writer made reference to the fact that adult puffins look exactly like their portraits on the spines of Puffin Books for children, but oddly, she made no reference at all to Bruce McMillan’s 1995 book, Nights of the Pufflings, which tells the story a bit more accurately and with lots of photos.

The Wall Street Journal used to carry really interesting stories about birds, but a couple of years ago they ran one sensational front page story about how bird feeders are hazardous to birds, though the writer didn’t include a single fact in the story that hadn’t been covered for decades in bird-feeding books, and the writer didn’t include a single helpful piece of information about how to avoid feeder hazards in the first place. The September first Wall Street Journal front page article is hardly news, having been scooped nine years ago in a children’s book, but it’s still a fascinating and heart-warming story.