Puffins in Iceland and Wales Spotted Using Tools

puffin scratching tool

A puffin in Iceland and one in Wales were spotted using sticks to scratch an itch – a form of tool use that has never before been seen in wild birds. According to researchers, recording the behaviour at two breeding colonies 1,700km (1,050mi) apart suggests this type of tool use may be widespread among certain types of seabirds, whose “physical cognition may have been underestimated.”

An Atlantic puffin was filmed at its breeding colony on Grímsey Island in North Iceland picking up a stick in its beak and using it to scratch an itch. This incident was caught on camera some four years after an Atlantic puffin on Skomer Island in Wales was observed using a stick to scratch its back. To date, using a tool for scratching is a behaviour that has only been observed in primates and elephants.

“Our findings suggest that while this behaviour is rare it is not restricted to a single population,” the report, authored by Annette L. Fayet, Erpur Snær Hansen, and Dora Biro, reads.

As for what led to the behaviour, the report’s authors suggest the puffins could have been attempting to get rid of seabird ticks, which plague seabird colonies, as “the stick may have helped with scratching or dislodging them, perhaps more effectively than the beak.”

The researchers state their findings warrant further studies on seabird cognition and tool use among wild animals, which could ultimately help in “understanding the evolutionary history of our own species.”

The full report and videos of the Grímsey puffin are available on PNAS’s website.

Trophy Hunters Slammed for Shooting Puffins in Iceland

Atlantic puffin

British trophy hunters are paying as much as £3,000 ($3,700/€3,300) for puffin hunting trips in Iceland, according to a recently published article from The Independent. On such trips, hunters reportedly kill up to 100 birds at a time. The Atlantic puffin is protected in the UK but it remains legal to hunt the bird in Iceland.

Over half of the world’s population of Atlantic puffins breeds in Iceland, numbering some 8-10 million birds. In 2018, BirdLife International declared the Atlantic puffin in danger of extinction. The puffin’s conservation status was also recently rated as vulnerable by the IUCN. Puffin hunting is legal in Iceland, and the bird is served as a local delicacy at restaurants around the country.

Erpur Snær Hansen, director of Nátturustofa Suðurlands (The South Iceland Nature Institute), says puffin numbers have dropped since 2003, though they remain the largest stocks of any bird in Iceland. Experts reported that puffin numbers in Iceland dipped significantly last year due to various environmental factors. They appear to be on the upswing in some areas of the country this year.

Puffins Numbers High in Westman Islands

Puffin numbers have not been higher in the Westman Islands since record-keeping began in 2007, RÚV reports. A total of 78% of puffin nests on the islands were occupied in a recent survey that Náttúrustofa Suðurlands (The Nature Institute of South Iceland) conducted with the help of volunteers.

While the high occupancy rate in the Westman Islands is good news for puffin lovers, Erpur Snær Hansen, doctor of biology and the institute’s director, warns it’s too early to celebrate, as it remains to be seen how successful the breeding season will be.

Recent years rough for puffins

Over half of the world’s population of Atlantic puffins breeds in Iceland, or some 8-10 million birds. In 2018, BirdLife International declared the Atlantic puffin in danger of extinction. The puffin’s conservation status was also recently rated as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Puffins have been hard hit in recent years due to a diminished food supply. Algae has been blooming late in recent spring seasons, causing a chain reaction in the ocean ecosystem which meant less fish for puffins to feed on. Researchers expect improved conditions for the birds this year.

Higher occupancy across Iceland

The Westman Islands are not the only spot in Iceland showing high nest occupancy rates. Erpur says that puffin nesting areas around the country are showing high rates of occupancy. “At Breiðafjörður, there are more than half a million pairs, which therefore are of the utmost importance. There the occupancy is about 86%.”

Record Number of Bird Species This Winter

Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson, animal ecologist for The Icelandic Institute of Natural History says that a record number of bird species have chosen to make Iceland their winter dwelling place, RÚV reports. Over 90 species have been reported by birdwatchers this winter, an increase Kristinn and colleagues relate to climate change. At the same time there is a noticeable decrease in numbers within known bird species, and some are on the endangered species list, including the Atlantic puffin.

The institute has been keeping a tally of winter birds in Iceland as a part of a special long-running project started in 1952. Recruiting amateur birdwatchers to help keep watch, the institute started the project as a bit of a hobby for Iceland’s bird watching community, but its success means it is now considered a valuable indicator of change in Iceland’s fauna.

Over 50 species of birds are considered winter regulars in Iceland, but according to Kristinn, new species have begun settling here, including some rare ones. “This years tally has revealed 90 species, which is a record high for Iceland,” Kristinn says.

Climate change can drastically change the behaviour of birds, for example there has been a noticeable increase in swans, Eurasian wigeons and greylag geese over the last few years. Furthermore, bird species that prefer colder climates have moved on. “The bird we relate to snow, the snow bunting, has been noticeably scarcer here in the past years,” Kristinn says. “They seem to be yielding to environmental changes that have happened over the last 10 to 20 years.”

Iceland’s increasingly mild winters affect many different species in myriad of ways. The rock ptarmigan, for example, whose plumage changes in winter from brown to white, becomes easy pray for gyrfalcons and human hunters alike when snow is sparse. In 2017, little to no snow fell, making the snow white rock ptarmigans stick out. “You could say it was like shooting fish in a barrel during the first few days of ptarmigan hunting season.”

The Icelandic Institute of Natural History has made a list of endangered species of birds, following guidelines by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many known bird species feature on the list, including the Atlantic puffin, Eurasian curlew, the great skua and many others.