Puffins on the English coast draw crowds of adoring fans; can they inspire people to change their habits?
At Bempton Cliffs, on the Yorkshire Coast on the east side of the UK, about 3,000 charismatic little seabirds nest. The puffin is a spark bird for producer Paul Drury-Bradey and many others that come to see them in the summer months. But these awkward flyers with colorful bills can spark more than just an interest in birds and birding. Conservationists hope they can also spark interest in addressing climate change, reducing and cleaning up plastic waste, and other human-caused challenges that threaten their existence.
Ari Daniel: This is BirdNote.
Steve Wallace: I've seen them on TV documentaries, and obviously on my, I used to see them on the front of all the book covers, but I've never actually seen them on the cliff face, you know, up close before. And yeah, I've just seen one. I was actually able to recognize one taking off from the sea, because its wings were going so rapidly, just flapping against the sea surface. And it was small and dark. And I guessed it must be a puffin.
Ari Daniel: This is Steve Wallace, who’s birdwatching at Bempton Cliffs in the north of England. I’m Ari Daniel, and this is Threatened. Today we have a story about humans and puffins. How they interact and interweave and how this complex relationship is a double-edged sword. And here’s the question we’re after: How does the puffins’ cuteness and iconic status affect their place in our shared ecosystem? Our story comes to us from producer Paul Drury-Bradey who’s here with me now.
Hey there Paul, you’re reporting this story from Bempton Cliffs. Now I spent a little time near the North Sea when I was studying in Scotland a number of years back. But where are the Bempton Cliffs, exactly?
Paul Drury-Bradey: On the Yorkshire Coast Ari, which is on the east side of the UK. The closest big city you probably know is probably Leeds. And, it’s close to Scarborough which everyone seems to know from that folk song, “The Scarborough Fair”?
Ari Daniel: Oh boy Paul, I’m afraid I don’t have the deepest knowledge of pop culture. It’s really not ringing any bells. Maybe you could just sing it for me?
Paul Drury-Bradey: That’s not a good idea. All you really need to know is that the song is about fishermen and traders and herring girls. And it’s really old, a traditional folk song dating back to the middle ages. But in some ways it's still relevant today. The Scarborough Fair followed the herring migration down from Scotland through the Northeast coast of England. The herring were food for people, and of course seabirds too. It makes me think about the links between people and their local environment today.
Ari Daniel: Paul, what else can you tell me about the region? Can you paint me a picture?
Paul Drury-Bradey: Yeah, the region looks out east over the choppy wild waters of the North Sea out towards Denmark and Germany, in fact. The towering chalk cliffs are transformed into a true seabird city every year with the visit of half a million seabirds. Just one percent of these seabirds are puffins. But for many people, just like me, these charismatic little creatures are spark birds. This spark bird term means a bird that ignites a whole new passion for birding more generally...
Ari Daniel: So why now? How did the puffin become your personal spark bird?
Paul Drury-Bradey: It was partly leaving London. Moving back up north and settling here on the Yorkshire Coast. But almost as soon as we’d moved here, the pandemic happened. I was looking for things to do outside, close to home and a random puffin post on my Facebook inspired me to learn more.
[bird calls, wind]
Paul Drury-Bradey: So, wanting to see a puffin is what first brought me to where I am today — Bempton Cliffs, like so many people. And the first time I see a puffin I just can’t stop smiling. There’s no two ways about it — they are funny, cheeky and there just seems to be that strange kind of connection. I’m here now in May, because early summer months in England are peak puffin peeping.
David Craven: I think it is the charisma that they bring. They are — I mean, I hate using the word cute, but I think that is exactly what it is.
Paul Drury-Bradey: This is David Craven from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
David Craven: They have all the things that we respond to as humans in making an animal cute, in that, you know, they're quite small, they're sort of quite charismatic, they've got that sort of bright, colourful bill.
Paul Drury-Bradey: His team is organising a massive puffin festival this summer, working with artists, filmmakers and people who feel inspired by puffins. In fact, the puffin has always inspired creative people — you’ve got artists like Robert Fuller who sells puffin paintings for almost £10,000, and puffin storytellers such as Ellie Jackson, who recently wrote a children’s book called Marli's Tangled Tale: a gentle true story about a puffin who gets more than she bargained for when hunting for food.
David Craven: So they get these nicknames like “clowns of the sea,” “parrots of the sea.” And that sort of short, fat dumpy little shape is the sort of thing that we think of as being quite comical. They're not the best birds in the air to watch. They're not particularly good fliers, they tend to sort of propel themselves on a cliff and off a cliff. And that's about as far as they get most of the time. They'll be sitting on the surface of the water on the oceans, on the seas and the North Sea, and fishing, but when they get into the water, that sort of awkward looking body in the air becomes really incredibly efficient. But I think it is their visual appearance that really endears them to people.
Paul Drury-Bradey: These special birds have their own manners and truly unique way of doing things. And it’s a way of doing things that is somehow intertwined with our human lives. We mirror each other in so many ways — not least caring for how we look. Did you know, a puffin’s beak changes color during the year? Just like our wardrobe changes. In winter, the beak has a dull gray color, but in spring it blooms with an outrageous orange. It’s thought that the bright color helps puffins assess potential mates.
And it’s their mating ritual that perhaps makes them so magnetic to people. They are one of the most monogamous creatures in the animal kingdom, and couples usually go back to the same place to nest year after year. And before they nest, they perform this adorable little ceremony where they rub their beaks together. This beak rubbing is an affirmation of the puffin couple’s true bond with each other.
David Craven: And they have really interesting little rituals that they do when they meet back up. So in May, if you're in the right place, and you can see them meeting each other, when they first connect back to each other, they find each other by calling, by making their sort of little, little bit like a sort of mooing sound that a puffin makes, they recognize each other's call, they go and find each other. And then they actually clack their beaks together, knocking them side to side against each other as a little greeting when they first meet. And they sort of push their little heads together. So there's a really affectionate looking gesture that they do. And it's something that you always see.
The best place to see puffins in mainland England is right here — Bempton Cliffs. It’s home to one of the largest mainland colonies of puffins in the country — there are around three thousand in total.
Danielle Jackson: You walk up the cliffs and you kind of look out and you're like, “Oh, wow.”
Paul Drury-Bradey: Danielle Jackson, the Visitor Experience Manager. She joins me on a deck outside, binoculars in hand. There are so many birds, I’ve no idea how you’d ever count them all.
Danielle Jackson: It's not often that you see this much wildlife, there, just straight in front of your eyes.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Danielle’s eyes light up as she describes a puffin’s life cycle.
Danielle Jackson: On average, a Puffin lives for about 20 years. The oldest record is Puffin was 42 years old and that was found in Norway. Normally they start breeding around seven or eight years. They pair for life. So they are quite cute in that respect. Most of the seabirds actually are the same, they mate for life. And they normally spend time out at sea. So actually being on land and coming in nesting is not their preferred habitat. So most of the time they're at sea. They're diving for fish. Normally they sandeels and sprats, which are found quite deep down, particularly sandeels.”
Paul Drury-Bradey: Danielle explained that a fully grown puffin in England grows to be around a foot tall and weigh a little less than a pound. That’s a similar weight to a regular can of cola. The tourists I talked to at Bempton Cliffs were surprised at just how small this bird is. But does this pocket size help them be more recognisable or maybe even better loved?
Dave O’Hara is the Site Manager at Bempton Cliffs.
Dave O’Hara: I remember speaking to a couple who are saying how they've been to the Serengeti. But they, you know, thought the seabird experience here, was on a par, you know, with the Serengeti experience of wildlife in Africa, which is quite a compliment, you know.”
Paul Drury-Bradey: After hearing this, I really wanted to get a feel from visitors about why the puffin is just so special. I wanted to know why the puffin could be understood as a spark bird. And how did it unlock this new love for bird life? And what does this mean for conservation efforts?
Speaking to one man out on the cliffs, he felt inspired by the birds to come here after some personal struggles.
Steve Wallace: I’m retired now, I’m a widower and I’m just trying different things. I have some leukemia too. I’m filling every day. I just love seabirds, I love the sea.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Steve Wallace, who we heard at the beginning of this episode, is from Hull in East Yorkshire, and is new to birdwatching. The cliffs and their birds here are helping him to cope with loss and illness.
Steve Wallace: If I'm ever feeling low, because I lost my wife three years ago, and before that I found out I have leukemia which is incurable, although it's treatable. And so I do get down days sometimes. But if I get a down day, I come to the coast with the sound of the seabirds and the sound of the sea crashing. I love rough seas as well, I love watching rough seas. And it lifts my spirits, you know, makes you feel like it's still worth hanging in there.”
Paul Drury-Bradey: Of course, Steve wasn’t the only person I met on the Yorkshire Coast who has fallen in love with puffins.
Liz Birbeck: When I was a Girl Guide, I did a permit badge. I did a thing about birds, and I got this thing about the puffin and I'd never actually seen one. And I think just from drawing its picture and coloring it’s bill in, I was wanting to see a puffin. I actually saw my first puffin in Iceland. I have seen them here and I've seen them on the Farne Islands. You know, a dream come true from childhood.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Liz Birbeck from Cumbria in the North West of England sharing her story there. In fact, everyone I spoke to had something to say about the magical puffin. Philipa Garland from Pickering in Yorkshire spends hours gazing at their colors and charisma:
Philipa Garland: They're just so comical. And they’re so colorful. You know, they're quite exotic. That beak is not like anything else as far as I know that we have visiting the UK. And they're just rather, they're just so sweet. And yeah, they're quite adorable.
Ari Daniel: Coming up, we learn more about what spark birds mean for conservation, and that puffins aren’t just cartoon characters. The threats they face are very real.
Ari Daniel: Paul, many bird watchers have a spark bird, that first one that really captured their imagination. It seems like the puffin is that kind of spark bird for a lot of people. So do you have a sense as to why that might be?
Paul Drury-Bradey: I think it’s colors really — the way puffins somehow look different to other birds. It’s a strange thing to say, but there’s almost this relatability there.
Ari Daniel: But, do all of these cute little characteristics — the way they look, their mating habits — mean we somehow forget the “birdness” of puffins? Can they become almost too cute?
Paul Drury-Bradey: It is really an iconic bird. From meeting people at Bempton Cliffs, it’s almost as if the idea is so clear before — but seeing the bird first hand really helps to change perceptions.
Ari Daniel: Yeah, it’s like when you see the puffins, they convert from just an idea in your head, to reality on the ground, or in the sea. And it kind of reminds me of the climate conversation we’re having.
Paul Drury-Bradey: I think you’re right, Ari. In a lot of ways, it goes from being an abstract to something very real that perhaps changes the way you think. I spoke to Danielle again about the power of puffins — does their accessibility and spark bird status somehow help us to make more sense of our changing environment?
Danielle Jackson: I do, I think people often — so we have a lot of visitors that come here with, “I just want to see a puffin. That's all I want to see”. But then, so they focus, and once they've seen that puffin, they then sort of like, all the blinkers come off, and then they see everything else. They start seeing the gannets soaring past, they start to notice the kittiwakes gathering mud, they see like the inside of a Razorbill’s mouth, which is a bright yellow colour. They see all the guillemots in a line, they see the Barn Owls, which has been out today, like over the fields, and you might see a vole run backwards and forwards. They notice all the Tree Sparrows around the visitor center. So they come here with the idea of puffins, and it really opens up to what they can experience or what they can see. Yeah, I would say puffins — there are a few sort of gateway birds. I call them gateway wildlife, and puffins are definitely one of those.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Do people really know this bird beyond the iconography? It became clear that coming to this wild and windy part of Yorkshire really connected people with birds and the puffin in particular. It shifted from an icon to a firm idea. And became tangible. I spoke to David Craven again:
David Craven: Yeah, I think what's really interesting is that we've seen studies that show that the Puffin is one of the most recognisable birds, if you show a member of the general public 20 pictures of 20 different birds, the Puffin is one of the ones that they will all recognize. But they don't know that they're here in the UK, they think that they're a tropical bird. And actually 90% of the world's puffins all breed in Europe. In fact, 60% of them breed in Iceland. So they're not tropical at all. They like that cold, sort of Atlantic setting. And so I think that when you get something that people realize that they love already, even if they've never actually seen one in the flesh, and you say, “Well, you can come and see that here in Yorkshire” — great excuse to get them there.
Paul Drury-Bradey: This is powerful stuff, but how could this power be harnessed to make change happen? The puffin here is the Atlantic Puffin, which is sadly classified as vulnerable to extinction.
David Craven: And then we can go from well you love the Puffin. And actually the puffin's a really threatened species, especially here in the UK. And here's what you can do to actually help us out to help ensure that these puffins survive, thrive and here for generations to come.”
Paul Drury-Bradey: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, better known here as the RSPB, is the UK’s leading bird charity and they have the puffin on their Red List - which means it is globally threatened and has had a severe population decline in the UK. And it is really sensitive to adverse changes in the environment. Because as I learned its breeding population is concentrated on such a small number of sites.
David Craven: The biggest threat that faces the puffins in Yorkshire is undoubtedly climate change. The reason that's such a big threat in Yorkshire is — the reason the puffins come to this particular location is that just offshore, we have an upwelling of cold water, and that cold water brings with it nutrients which are carried on circulatory currents through the ocean. Those nutrients welling up feeds the small fish, particularly sandeels that the puffins are dependent on.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Sandeels are the primary food for the puffins here. These sandeels are small, eel-like fish which grow up to about a foot long and can often be found in vast shoals in Yorkshire’s seas. But ecologists know that warming waters affect the populations of sandeels very quickly.
David Craven: Now on a global scale, as the climate warms, what that does to those oceanic circulatory currents is it slows them up. And when it slows them up, that means that you don't get the same level of nutrients being carried through the oceans up through the Atlantic…
Paul Drury-Bradey: With puffins, their true fragility is inescapable. Because of their low reproductive rate, puffin populations can be really slow to recover from any changes to their habitat, predator attacks or declines in their food.
David Craven: So what may feel like this big, huge, global-scale problem has an incredibly locally manifested issue right here in Yorkshire, because it takes away that food source. And because puffins are so site-specific, because they come back to that same place, if that food isn't there, if the sandeels are driven further north, or if the sandeel stay further south or go further out to sea — any of those changes, those little changes actually dramatically impact on the puffins.
Paul Drury-Bradey: Although puffins are on the RSPB’s Red List, the population at Bempton Cliffs is currently thought to be stable. But, and it’s a big but — it’s extraordinarily hard to count them here because puffins love to hide in little cracks and holes around the cliffs. David explained things could change very quickly.
David Craven: At the moment, touch wood, and hopefully what we're seeing are still a relatively stable population in Yorkshire of the puffins and the other seabirds that we have here on the cliffs. So hopefully, at the moment, that's okay, there's still enough food, they’re still managing to come back and breed. But it wouldn't take much to tip them over the edge. And when it tips, it's not one of these things will be a gradual decline, it will be a fairly catastrophic decline, because the food will go very quickly, and then the birds will effectively starve.
Paul Drury-Bradey: There’s something profound at play as the tourists encounter the puffins here. When the puffin goes from an idea to something tangible, the threats to their food, their habitat and their very survival become so much more real too.
David Craven: So one of those things is when we think about climate change, there's a tendency for us to think that all the little things that we're in, we're encouraged to do can't possibly help. That's just not true. All those little things do mount up. So all the little things about reducing our own energy use, trying to just live that slightly bit more sustainable way — all of that does help to this idea of trying to keep climate change in check, so that we don't end up with this kind of catastrophic collapse of colonies of puffins.
Paul Drury-Bradey: I think by seeing these birds in their natural habitat, they become less of a painting, less of a character or cartoon, and more of a living creature who needs and deserves the right conditions to survive.
David Craven: The other thing that is a threat to puffins is things like litter, particularly plastics, because the microplastics and the macroplastics that get into the systems into the ocean, which come down through our river systems. So somebody flushes something in Yorkshire in the west of the county, it will end up at the coast coming out through the rivers. And these things can actually end up in nests, where they can tangle and choke the birds. They will potentially end up floating out at sea where they're picked up by mistake as food and then they're fed to the birds. And the birds can choke to death, or the birds can just starve, because they're not actually getting nutritious food. They're just getting plastic.
And we also see things like birds getting tangled up in waste. There's a photo I saw recently of a bird related to a puffin out at sea off the Flamborough Coast, and it had been caught in the string from a balloon that somebody had released. So things like avoiding any of these things that put this sort of litter into the system, that's a great thing that people can do. And you may not think that somewhere, you know, 100 miles inland that what you do is going to have that sort of impact at the coast on birds like puffins, but it really will.
Paul Drury-Bradey: But there are grounds to be cheerful. Dave O’Hara says he’s optimistic that people visiting Bempton Cliffs for the first time often feel really inspired to improve things for puffins and our environment too.
Dave O’Hara: People can help to conserve puffins and other seabirds by, firstly, just taking an active interest in the issues that are affecting them, and maybe adding their name to a petition or to show their support for seabirds. There's very positive initiatives for us to manage the seas better for nature over the coming years. But politicians need to know that the public care about these issues. And politicians then care if the public care.
Paul Drury-Bradey: There’s something really special about your spark bird. That’s why puffins have such a unique power. They’re a spark bird for so many people, but I found out they don’t just spark interest in birdlife. They spark interest in the seas, our cliffs and our shared environment - and how all this is changing.
Perhaps puffins are going from cute to catalyst? And inspiring people discovering birdlife and nature for the first time to think deeply about the decisions they make day-to-day. And then how we can work together to make our local environments better. These environments are of crouse interconnected. But if this lockdown love affair with puffins has taught us anything - it’s to make a difference at home first and at your local reserve.
Ari Daniel: While the cuteness of puffins in England may help save them, there’s another bird, half a world away, that is suffering perhaps in part because it is not seen as attractive.
Jessica Dawson: I know a lot of times they're not seen as being a beautiful animal, but they actually are. And they're actually quite clean. They do bathe every day.
Next week on Threatened, we’re heading to Zimbabwe to learn about vultures.
This episode was produced by Paul Drury-Bradey, Nick Granville-Fall, and me, Ari Daniel. Edited by Caitlin Pierce of the Rough Cut Collective. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final V2. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson with production assistance from Sam Johnson. You can find our show notes with additional resources, BirdNote’s other podcasts, and much more at BirdNote dot org. Thanks for listening, I’ll see you next time.