Puffed-out Puffins Struggle to Breed, Say Oxford Scientists

Birds exhausted by long-distance migration find it hard to raise a chick.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 6 Dec 2017, 18:13 GMT
This Atlantic puffin has found a feast of sand eels on the coast of Wales.
This Atlantic puffin has found a feast of sand eels on the coast of Wales.
Photograph by Visit Britain, Visit Wales Image Centre

Long distance migration may be good for survival but not for breeding, according to new research led by scientists from the Department of Zoology of the University of Oxford.

They spent eight years tracking the fortunes of different Atlantic puffin colonies around the world, and found that escaping a harsh habitat for winter carries a cost for the birds.

This is the first time that seabird migration behaviour has been studied on this scale in such comprehensive detail. The results are published in Current Biology, and are the result of a collaborative international partnership between the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, the University of New Brunswick in Canada, the South Iceland Nature Research Centre, and the University of Oxford.

The rich feeding grounds off the Isle of May in Scotland may not be enough to help this puffin if it has had a long migration to reach them.
Photograph by Visit Britain, Visit Scotland

Dr Annette Fayet of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: “Strategies seem to vary from colony to colony and there is a huge range of difference in these patterns. Some puffin populations, such as US colonies, never stray very far from their colony, travelling a few hundred miles away at most. While others, such as Irish puffin colonies, travel vast distances across the Atlantic during the winter months.”

The new study found that a number of factors drive the migratory behaviour of puffins, including competition and local habitat quality.

“If the environment is challenging and food scarce, it is natural that you would travel further to find sanctuary. Likewise, if your habitat is overcrowded, you are going to want to escape the competition,” said Dr Fayet.

This puffin has flown into Skomer Island, Wales, for the summer.
Photograph by Visit Britain, Visit Wales Image Centre

But the physical exhaustion of long-distance migration takes its toll on the breeding prospects of puffins. The researchers found that the birds which travelled vast distances have less chance of successfully rearing a chick the following year.

“Birds that experience a difficult winter are most likely returning to the colony in spring in poorer condition and struggle to breed. If we as conservationists want to help these species to survive we need to look at what we can do to support them during the winter season as well as the summer months. With this in mind it may be a good idea to implement protected areas in seabird winter hotspots such as the area south of Iceland and Greenland,” said Dr Fayet.

The findings may also apply to a range of migratory wildlife.

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