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Local puffin populations struggling

A puffin on Fair Isle arrives with a meal to feed its young. Photo: Oliver Prince/RSPB

ONE of Scotland’s most iconic birds could more or less disappear from northern coasts within a generation due to a lack of nutritious fish.

Puffin numbers have plummeted in recent years, and this is particularly evident for colonies in Shetland, Orkney and the northwest of Scotland, where adult birds appear to struggle finding enough sandeels to feed their young.

The RSPB said that more than 1,400 photos of puffins carrying fish which have been sent in by tourists and birdwatchers have helped scientists to understand what adult birds were feeding their young.

The photos have helped to identify areas where puffins are struggling to find the large, nutritious fish needed to support their chicks.

Early results suggest that the diet of puffins vary significantly around the UK. In the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, where serious puffin declines have been seen, puffins appear to be consistently finding smaller prey compared to most other colonies, the bird charity said.

Traditionally puffins feed on a mixture of fish, but with nutritious sandeels making up a high proportion of their diet.

The photos from puffin colonies in northwest Scotland show that sandeels are making up about half of their diet compared to the two-thirds at colonies in southern Scotland, northern England and Wales.

RSPB conservation scientist Ellie Owen, who is leading Project Puffin, said the public response to the appeal meant the organisation was getting data on a scale that they have never been able to collect before.

“Puffins’ colourful bills and unique eye markings make them a favourite bird to photograph,” she said.

“The huge response to our appeal for photos has been incredible, with more than a thousand submitted. It’s taken the team of staff and volunteers more than three months to go through them all.

“For a young puffin waiting in its burrow, its life hangs on whether its parents return with enough food. An abundant supply of large, nutritious fish such as sandeels, sprats and herrings is key to healthy colonies.”

The next stage of the project is to look more closely at the diet of puffins compared to their breeding success to pin down what part diet plays in the decline of some puffins.

 

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