Atlantic Puffins, Vultures, and Other Birds Increasingly at Risk of Extinction

atlantic puffin extinction

Story at-a-glance -

  • Atlantic puffins were recently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List
  • Loss of food sources and pollution, including oil spills, are largely to blame for the puffins’ vulnerable status
  • Six vulture species in Africa have been moved to more critical categories on IUCN’s Red List; the birds are heavily targeted by poachers and poisoning

By Dr. Becker

The International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) "Red List" of Threatened Species was updated three times in 2015. Nearly 80,000 species have now been assessed, with 23,250 threatened with extinction.

For more than 80 percent of the species assessed, habitat loss and degradation is the primary threat identified.

In the case of Atlantic puffins, however, which were recently listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, loss of food sources and pollution, including oil spills, are largely to blame for the birds’ vulnerable status.

Atlantic Puffins Moved to ‘Vulnerable’ List

To be listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, a species must be considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Even worse are the endangered and critically endangered categories, which describe species with “very high” and “extremely” high risks of extinction in the wild, respectively.

Atlantic puffins have penguin-like colors with a beak that turns from grey into bright colors in the spring (likely to attract a mate). This colorful beak has earned them the nicknames of “sea parrot” and “clowns of the sea.”

Atlantic puffins live in the North Atlantic and spend much of their lives floating on waves. They’re unique in that they’re both excellent swimmers and excellent flyers. According to National Geographic:1

“They are excellent swimmers that use their wings to stroke underwater with a flying motion. They steer with rudderlike webbed feet and can dive to depths of 200 feet (61 meters), though they usually stay underwater for only 20 or 30 seconds.

Puffins typically hunt small fish like herring or sand eels. In the air, puffins are surprisingly fleet flyers. By flapping their wings up to 400 times per minute they can reach speeds of 55 miles (88 kilometers) an hour.”

In the wild, Atlantic puffins may live to be more than 20 years old, but most do not breed until they’re 5. Further, they lay only one egg at a time, on a soft nest inside a burrow they dig themselves.

Both the males and females take turns feeding their chick (they eat mostly small fish), and the couples reunite at their burrow site each year (how they find their way back remains a scientific mystery).2

There are still millions of puffins in the wild, but with their favorite food sources (small fish like herring, hake, capelin and sand lance) on the decline, they’re increasingly at risk. Environmental pollution, another threat, may push their numbers even closer to extinction.

In addition to Atlantic puffins, European turtle doves, Slavonian grebes, and pochards were also added to IUCN’s vulnerable list. There are now 40 more bird species classified at higher risk of extinction, according to IUCN’s latest update. Bird conservation expert Martin Harper told BBC News:3

"The erosion of the U.K.'s wildlife is staggering and this is reinforced when you talk about puffin and turtle dove now facing the same level of extinction threat as African elephant and lion, and being more endangered than the humpback whale.”

Vultures in Africa Aare Also Facing Extinction Risks

Vultures, which are heavily targeted by poachers and poisoning, are facing a growing risk of extinction. Six vulture species in Africa have been moved to more critical categories on IUCN’s Red List. Among them:4

  • Hooded vulture moved from endangered to critically endangered
  • Whit-backed vulture moved from endangered to critically endangered
  • White-headed vulture moved from vulnerable to critically endangered
  • Rüppell's Vulture moved from endangered to critically endangered

Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Africa Programme Director, said, as reported by Discovery News:5

“As well as robbing the African skies of one of their most iconic and spectacular groups of birds, the rapid decline of the continent’s vultures has profound consequences for its people — as vultures help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up rotting carcasses.”

Several species of vulture on the Indian subcontinent are in extreme danger of extinction due to cattle contaminated with the painkiller diclofenac. This veterinary drug is lethal to the vultures, which consume it when eating livestock carcasses in places like India, Pakistan and Nepal.

In Africa, meanwhile, populations of eight species declined by an average of 62 percent, and seven had declined at a rate of 80 percent or more, over three generations, according to a study published in Conservation Letters.6

According to the researchers, the vulture declines may have even gotten worse in recent years:7

“African vultures are often the unintended victims of poisoning incidents, in which carcasses are baited with highly toxic agricultural pesticides to kill carnivores such as lions, hyenas, and jackals, or to control feral dog populations.

Furthermore, the recent rapid increase in elephant and rhino poaching throughout Africa has led to a substantial increase in vulture mortality, as poachers have turned to poisoning carcasses specifically to eliminate vultures, whose overhead circling might otherwise reveal the poachers’ illicit activities.

Consequently, the decline rates estimated here may have accelerated sharply in recent years; since July 2011, there have been at least 10 poisoning incidents that have, collectively, killed at least 1,500 vultures in six southern African countries.”

Many Birds Are Facing Unprecedented Population Declines

It should be noted that many birds, not just Atlantic puffins and vultures, are at risk of population declines, including from illegal poaching.

In southern Europe, for instance, millions of migratory songbirds are hunted illegally and rampantly in order to make a local delicacy known as ambelopoulia (grilled, pickled, or boiled songbirds).

Further, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of 50 bird species revealed that by 2075, the birds you're used to seeing in your backyard may look very different. Some birds will have lost up to 90 percent of their current habitat range while others will increase theirs significantly.8

While you might not be able to stop declines to vultures or Atlantic puffins, you can make a difference close to home by making your backyard a more bird-friendly place.

To do so, create an area with natural habitat, including native grasses, shrubs, and trees, for birds to find refuge, especially if you live in an area that's highly developed (or surrounded by lawn "deserts").

Add in a source of water and food for the birds, minimize your use of pesticides and other garden chemicals (including fertilizers), and consider these additional tips to make your yard "bird-friendly": 9

  • Install bird nest boxes, which provide nesting areas even in urban areas
  • Reduce window collisions; place bird feeders within three feet or at least 20 feet away from windows and hang mylar tape strips from windows that are frequently struck by birds
  • Create a brush pile: A pile of downed tree limbs or other yard brush can provide an important refuge for birds during bad weather

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