Menu

Our Blue Planet

What are puffins feeding their chicks?

By Dr Ellie Owen

Dr Ellie Owen and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) set out to solve the mystery behind why puffin numbers have drastically declined.

Every year I look forward to summer approaching because that’s when I get to go out and do my fieldwork; spending some time in the company of the incredible seabirds that I study. But this summer was a bit different, it wasn’t just about the fieldwork and some more GPS tagging, we also had a citizen science project to run.

We set out to solve the mystery behind why puffin numbers have drastically declined and we recruited an army of passionate people to help us in this mission. The HLF funded Project Puffin wanted to learn more about what puffins were feeding their young as it is thought their food supply has been negatively impacted by warming seas and shifting ocean currents.

An army of Puffarazzi

So this summer we asked people to get involved and help us with this research by sending us photos of puffins with food in their bills from around the UK. By enlisting the help of the public, our army of ‘Puffarazzi’, we received 1402 photos of puffins feeding their pufflings.

From May to August, 602 people joined the Puffarazzi and soon we had photos of puffins carrying food to their chicks flooding in from almost 40 colonies around our coastline. This included well visited colonies such as the Farne Islands, Skomer and the Isle of May, but also off-the-beaten track colonies like Great Skellig, the Channel Islands and Fetlar.

This map shows all the locations where photographs were captured – a great section of almost 40 colonies!
This map shows all the locations where photographs were captured – a great section of almost 40 colonies!

It was great to have such an enthusiastic response and to receive so many photo. They will help us further our understanding of this declining seabird and find solutions to aid their recovery. Thanks to these pictures we have the first national snapshot of what puffins are feeding to their chicks which is important because some puffin colonies in their global range are declining to such an extent that puffins are now the same extinction risk level as giant pandas, requiring urgent action. Failure of their food supply is thought to contribute to these declines.

The icons in the map above are sized according to how many pictures were received. Most pictures came from the Farne Islands (>500 pictures), Skomer (more than 200) and the Isle of May (more than 200). It’s great that we managed to get lots of pictures from some sites because it means we can even look at how the food bought to chicks changed as the season progressed. We can also do some extra analysis to tell us how many pictures you really need in order to get a good idea of puffin diet at a colony. Some of the rarer colonies in our sample were the Isles of Scilly, Westray on Orkney and the East Caithness cliffs where we only managed a few images but those that we did get gave us vital clues in those areas.

We were grateful for every picture and were particularly amazed to see children as young as 11 taking part and one keen member of the Puffarazzi managed to capture 37 images for the project – top marks Nicola Shaw!

Puffin with sandeels and squid, picture by Puffarazzi member Franco Lee
Puffin with sandeels and squid, picture by Puffarazzi member Franco Lee

Lots of fish to count…

To analyse the pictures I have worked with a team of volunteer interns “the Puffineers”, who have been carefully looked at each picture and have identified the species of prey each puffin had caught and measured the sizes of each fish in each picture. With an average of nine prey for puffin there were 12,182 fish to analyse!

The interns did this job with skill and care over many hours. They recorded both adult and larval sandeels as well as rockling (tiny silver members of the cod family), other young fish from the cod family, herring/sprat and even squid in the diet of puffins (seen in the picture below). Early indications are that puffins may be finding smaller prey in some colonies in the North of the British Isles such as Orkney and Shetland. Puffins famously feed on sandeels but the proportion of this species also varied with them making up half of the diet of puffins in colonies in the northwest of Scotland compared to two-thirds at colonies in southern Scotland, northern England and Wales.

The data have yet to be analysed, but early indications are that the diets of puffin colonies vary around the UK has been successfully mapped, and that some colonies are struggling to find the abundant supply of large, nutritious fish needed to support growing pufflings.

Puffin with 15 sandeels with average size ~1.5 of the puffin’s bill. Picture by Puffarazzi member Graham Wagner.
Puffin with 15 sandeels with average size ~1.5 of the puffin’s bill. Picture by Puffarazzi member Graham Wagner.

Using citizen scientists is giving us data on a scale that we have never been able to collect before; showing what puffins are managing to find to feed their chicks across the length and breadth of our coastline.

I will now be working hard to look more closely at the diet of puffins compared to their breeding success to pin down what part diet plays in the decline of puffins.

It has been a great summer and I’ve loved coming to work every day and seeing the pictures coming in. This study would have been impossible without the amazing puffarazzi who responded so enthusiastically and the support from partners and RSPB staff at puffin colonies around our shores. Project puffin is showing how powerful citizen science can be and has certainly enlightened me to new ways to collect conservation data. Working out conservation solutions for birds like puffins is something everyone can be part of. Perhaps a leap from thinking of conservation as something ‘other people’ do to something ‘we all do’ – a bit like recycling – is the kind of shift in behaviour that really could bring the people-power conservation needs.

To see more of the pictures and to learn about Project Puffin, visit www.rspb.org.uk/projectpuffin On Twitter follow #ProjectPuffinUK

By Dr Ellie Owen