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Puffins threatened in the United States

Courtesy: Stephen Lloyd-Smart/Flickr

Courtesy: Stephen Lloyd-Smart/Flickr

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    Digital writers

    Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 2:10 PM -

    Puffin populations are at risk in the United States and possibly elsewhere, researchers say.

    In the Gulf of Maine, warming oceans are driving away the fish they feed on.

    The survival rate of chicks on Maine's main puffin settlements plunged last summer, and dozens of emaciated birds were found on the coast of Massachusetts and Bermuda last winter, drawing the attention of U.S. federal researchers. 

    With a colorful striped beak and pear-shaped body, puffins are sometimes referred to as "clowns of the sea" and are often cited as an example of successful seabird population restoration.

    Between six and eight million puffins inhabit the North Atlantic from Maine to northern Russia, but they almost disappeared from Maine in the late 1800s, when settlers hunted them for food and for their feathers.

    In 1901, only one pair of puffins was seen nesting in a remote corner of Maine. Today, Maine is home to more than 2,000 puffins. 

    Still, the survival rate of chicks is collapsing as the herring they rely on is migrating to cooler waters.

    At Seal Island, a National Wildlife Refuge located 30 kilometers offshore, only 31 percent of the eggs laid last summer hatched, compared with an average success rate of 77 percent over the previous five years.

    The largest puffin colony in Maine is on Machias Seal Island which rests along the border between Maine and New Brunswick.

    It contains some 10,000 puffins, but the average weight of adults and babies is declining, probably due to lack of food, said Professor Tony Diamond, University of New Brunswick.

    The amount of herring in the diet of birds is declining by 5 percent per year.

    Diamond says that puffins are breeding later this year that usual on the island, which indicates stress.

    With files from the Canadian Press

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