Icelandic Kids Save Befuddled Puffins

Peter Standring
National Geographic Today
August 12, 2002

Iceland is home to one of the world's largest colonies of puffins, and every August millions of newborn puffins leave their burrows in the cliffs of Heimaey—the main island in the Westmann Islands chain off the south coast of Iceland—to fly off over the north Atlantic. They leave at night, using the moon to navigate. But the streetlights of Heimaey seem to throw off some of the young birds' flight plans.

When that happens, it's time for the children of Heimaey to launch the Puffin Patrol—basically a search and rescue operation for the befuddled birds, which, instead of flying out to sea, fly into town where they crash-land and end up on the streets.

"They don't survive if they stay in the town; cats and dogs eat them, or they just die. It's really good to save them," said Einar Karason, a young Icelandic boy.

Each night during the month of August, moms and dads lead troops of kids through town looking for stranded pufflings. They use flashlights to search the ground near buildings and streetlights.

When a bird is spotted, children rush to scoop it up and bring it in off the "mean streets" of Heimaey for the night.

"They have to save the birds; if they don't do it, the birds die. They find it very exciting," said Agnes Einarsdottir, a local parent.

It is exciting for the kids, who get to throw live birds into the air and watch them fly away. But no doubt it's a little nerve-wracking for the recently born pufflings.

A "National Sport"

The children of Heimaey have been saving young pufflings for generations. In fact, at the end of the summer, releasing them by the hundreds to the safety of the sea has become a local tradition.

"Oh yes, this is our national sport," said Jon Danielsson, an Icelandic dad, laughing.

It may be their "national sport" but it's an adventure that has universal appeal. One night around midnight, American tourist Olaf Holm and his six-year-old son Andrew scoured the docks for pufflings. Within a half-hour they had a bird in hand.

Continued on Next Page >>


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