A review by Joel Greenberg
Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, by Stephen W. Kress and Derrick Z. Jackson
Yale University Press, 2015
357 pages, $30—hardcover
As an elementary school pupil in suburban Bexley, Ohio, Stephen W. Kress spent hours roaming the beech and maple forest and seasonal wetlands of Blacklick Woods Metropolitan Park. The place became Kress’s “best friend,” and he began to volunteer at the park, his efforts rewarded with gifts of small critters.
Kress grew ever more enamored of the natural world; soon he was begging his tolerant parents for Golden Guides on his birthday and Hanukkah. (Many of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s owe much to Herbert Zim, the creator and editor of that large series of small books.) An invitation to go looking for hawks and owls led him to a birder who would be his mentor for four years: Irving Kassoy had been one of that famous cohort of young birders, the Bronx County Bird Club, shepherded by the legendary Ludlow Griscom. Kassoy’s buddies included such birding luminaries as Roger Tory Peterson, Joseph J. Hickey, and Allan D. Cruickshank.
Much of Kress’s account of his formative years is very familiar to me, right down to supportive parents who provided the same books on the same holidays. But there is another, even more meaningful thread that runs through the experiences of many of us lifelong nature folks: the awareness that we need to devote time and energy to protecting the organisms and places that inspire and engage us.
That protection can take many forms, depending on one’s commitment, resources, and strengths. Kress, the Ohio native, connected with Atlantic Puffins, and he has made them his life.
Beginning in 1963, Kress spent his summers on the East Coast, working at the National Audubon Society’s camp on Hog Island. He first saw puffins at Machias Seal Island in Maine, but what triggered his obsession was learning that the species had once nested on Western Rock and Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, islands that he regularly visited with the Audubon campers.
Six simple words—”The puffin bred on these rocks”—changed Kress’s life.
Project Puffin is based largely on research and interviews conducted by Derrick W. Jackson; in the interest of a more uniform narrative tone, the stories are retold in Kress’s “voice.” Most of the book documents the efforts to bring the puffin back to “these rocks.” As Kress worked out his plans, he realized that the acclaimed seabird authority William Drury could play a key role in the birds’ re-establishment. Drury, director of research at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, was an expert on alcids—and, even more to Kress’s point, he favored an aggressive approach to conservation, where the right people “play God” so that others don’t.
Drury became an early ally in the plan to move chicks from an existing colony to the puffinless islands. He suggested that the much larger population on Canada’s Machias Seal Island might be a better source of puffin chicks than Maine’s Matinicus. When Kress submitted his request to the Canadians, however, the Wildlife Service’s David Nettleship declined to help, pointing out that Maine, at the southern edge of the species’ breeding range, was only peripheral to the puffin’s future. Then Drury stepped in, with a letter of his own reiterating and expanding Kress’s argument for the re-introduction. Nettleship changed his mind, and ultimately Canada granted Kress and Drury permission to obtain chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland, site of the largest puffin colony in North America.
Even then, the challenges were enormous. Getting people and equipment ashore on a small rocky island in the cold and roiling waters was daunting. On one occasion, Kress had on board a film crew from “Nature” and the 81-year-old Roger Tory Peterson, all of whom were dumped into the sea by “a huge wall of green water”; fortunately, the team was rescued—by a sightseeing boat out for an evening puffin cruise.
Ensuring that the young puffins had adequate food and shelter (in specially excavated burrows) proved a constant strain. One of Kress’s early research assistants stationed on the island asked to be reassigned, finding that the “overbearing weight of responsibility for each bird’s welfare is incredibly time-consuming and physically/emotionally exhausting.”
To increase the likelihood that the relocated puffins would return to their new island, Kress and his team developed innovative techniques of social attraction, using decoys and audio devices to broadcast calls. Gulls were poisoned and shot to reduce the threat of predation, and even a wayward pair of otters that found the island a good buffet had to be destroyed.
The time passed fretfully as Kress and his associates waited for the relocated puffins to return from sea; the book succeeds well in communicating their anxiety about whether the effort and expense would turn out to be worth it. But writers rarely celebrate their failures, and so it is no surprise that the puffins did come back to Egg Rock. Convinced that his methods had worked, Kress turned his attention to another island that had once hosted puffins; there, too, he succeeded in bringing the species back.
Atlantic Puffins are not endangered. Whether the creation of two small populations at the southern edge of their range has enhanced the species’ continued survival strikes me as questionable. Kress followed his heart in wanting puffins to come back to those particular islands he cared so much about. It seems as if even Kress is bothered by this a bit. In self-justifying mode, he writes that
The very recent successes with [the] critically endangered…Cahow [Bermuda Petrel] in Bermuda and the Short-tailed Albatross…give further support to the value of translocation and social attraction to help species that share the puffin’s life strategy. This is exactly why I wanted to invest time and scarce conservation dollars to benefit Maine puffins when millions of puffins lived elsewhere.
But Kress shouldn’t feel defensive, and he shouldn’t worry that the prodigious effort put forth by him and his associates will be for naught.
Knowledge has been gained, effective techniques have been pioneered, and many other birds have been helped by Project Puffin. The project has drawn considerable media attention over the years, and innumerable people have learned about the importance of conservation and, most importantly, inspired to do their part.
If it is now up to us to “play God” in preserving biodiversity, Kress has done more than his share in helping fill the ranks of those who will shoulder the task.
– Joel Greenberg, a Research Associate of the Field Museum and of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, is the author of four books, including A Natural History of the Chicago Region and A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. He co-wrote and co-produced the award-wining documentary From Billions to None.
Greenberg, J. 2015. The puffin bred on these rocks [a review of Project Puffin, by S. W. Kress and D. Z. Jackson]. Birding 47 (5): 68.