The Atlantic Puffin is a rather small sea bird that spends most of its time at sea in the North Atlantic Ocean. They are Auks or members of the Alcidae Family of birds (alcids). The only time it usually comes ashore is to breed and raise a chick.
These are the only puffins that occur in the Atlantic. There are two species of puffins that occur in the Pacific - Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins. They are so appealing probably because of the multi-colored bills that they display during the breeding season and have given them nicknames like "sea parrot" and "clowns of the sea". Puffins have always been liked by people but, for a long time, for reasons other than bird watching. When the early pioneers came to the North Atlantic coast in the 1600's, they began killing seabirds for food. As more settlers came to New England, puffins (and many other birds) were killed for their feathers. These feathers were used often as decorations in ladies' hats! Puffins have long been hunted in some parts of their range and are a common food item in Iceland and the Faeroe Islands today.
Puffins had nested along the Maine coast on at least 6 islands: Eastern Egg Rock, Western Egg Rock, Large Green Island, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island and Machias Seal Island. By the early 1900's, there was only one pair of puffins left south of the Canadian border. That pair lived on Matinicus Rock, a lonely pile of rocks 22 miles off the coast in Penobscot Bay. After Matinicus Rock's lighthouse keepers began protecting the puffins from hunters, the puffins began to come back and there are now about 150 pairs that nest there. Puffins had always remained on Machias Seal Island on the Canadian border which today supports a breeding colony of about 3,000 pairs of puffins.
Puffins never came back to 4 of the other 5 islands on their own maybe because of the large populations of gulls, especially the large, aggressive and always hungry Great Black-backed Gulls.
Back in 1973, Stephen Kress began Project Puffin to re-introduce puffins to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay off mid-coast Maine. It took about 8 years of trips to Newfoundland to bring back puffin chicks to "transplant". Today there are puffin breeding colonies on at least 5 of the original 6 islands off the coast of Maine: Eastern Egg Rock, Seal Island NWR (re-introduced colonies), Matinicus Rock, Petit Manan Island and Machias Seal Island (natural colonies).
The size of the puffin colonies vary greatly. According to Project Puffin's Egg Rock Update, during the 2010 nesting season the colony on Seal Island had over 500 pairs and the colony on Eastern Egg Rock increased to 123 pairs of puffins.
By comparison, Machias Seal Island's colony numbers in the thousands of puffins each year. I think it's fair to point out that Eastern Egg Rock's colony IS growing since the re-introduction program began and "wild" puffins are joining the colony every breeding season. It's just a smaller colony.
Some Important Facts...
Puffins are very abundant birds of the North Atlantic and have never been endangered or threatened (worldwide). There are an estimated 14 million puffins from Maine to Norway and many of the islands and coasts in between.
Hunting puffins on the Maine coastal islands probably added to the demise of some of the colonies, however there may have been natural climatic reasons also. The mid-1800's were especially cold years here in the southernmost limit of the puffin's range. A return to normal tempatures may have helped force the puffin range to move back further north. Some scientists feel that Machias Seal Island is the southernmost limit of the puffin range and that any other colonies south of this point are "fringe" colonies.