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.

"We saw the silhouette that looked like a little puffin and, sure enough, there he was, right in the middle of the parking lot. We jumped out and we got him," said Holm.

The following day all the birds that landed in "friendly hands" are transported to the seashore, pointed in the right direction, and given their flying orders. The kids seem to have a great time.

Holding the birds, with wings free and flapping, the idea is to cock your arm like a quarterback and throw the bird like a football, launching it into the air.

Some birds take flight immediately, while others land in the salty waters and take off from there.

National Dish?

What sort of impact all this has on the species as a whole is not known. The largest colonies of puffins in the world are found here in Iceland—roughly eight to ten million birds. They are not endangered and, apart from being a national symbol, they are also a national "dish."

Smoked or sauteed, puffin is featured on a lot of dinner menus around Heimaey.

It may seem a bit strange running around trying to save these creatures when, ultimately, they could end up as a main course. But according to Kristjan Egilsson, director of the Natural History Museum in Heimaey and a native who rehabilitates injured puffins, it is all perfectly normal.

"Maybe for you, maybe for foreigners this looks strange to eat such a nice bird as puffin, but this we have done for hundreds of years," said Egilsson.

Fortunately for the small, helpless, and confused pufflings, the annual search-and-rescue efforts are also tried and true—a custom passed from generation to generation. Whether it's overhand or underhand, thanks to the strong arms and big hearts of the children, stranded pufflings are getting a second chance.

If they survive, young puffins will spend two years on the open ocean before they return to the island to breed. But, for some reason, on the return leg they have no trouble keeping their bearings and all arrive at the same time.

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