It is a very beautiful day here in Shetland.  The sun is shining, the air and sea are fairly calm, there are still some guillemots with their chicks lower down the cliffs (I imagine many of whom will leave this evening as it is calm), fulmars have fluffy gorgeous chicks and there are loads of puffins on the cliffs looking like they are posing for visitors.   It was at this time yesterday when we noticed strange occurences in the Puffincam burrow. 

As I type this entry, Andy, from Promote Shetland, is looking through the footage.  With thanks to Puffincam viewers who have emailed with news of their observations, we're managing to piece together what happened to result in the death of the peerie puffling.  Before I go into the details and interpretation, I just want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been in contact about Puffincam.  It is wonderful to hear that you have enjoyed watching life at Sumburgh Head.  It makes the time and effort RSPB and Promote Shetland put into the project worthwhile.

So, what did happen yesterday?

Between 6.25am and 9am, there was commotion within the burrow.  At one point three puffins were there, and there was a time when the chick looked like it was being evicted - pushed, shoved and pecked.  Up until around 11.30, things looked OK.  There were some postings on Twitter and the RSPB forum of the chick being attended to by a parent.  Then the chick appeared to get weaker and weaker, an adult started behaving in a distressed manner, and then the chick stopped breathing at 12.06. 

From 12.08, there followed around 4hours of parent birds kicking up nest material, settling down beside the dead chick, pacing up and down the burrow.  Some folk say we shouldn't humanise birds, but it is difficult not to put our own emotions on to the birds. They looked quite distraught.

After taking some advice, we retrieved the chick, quickly took some measurements of its wing and weight, and returned it to the burrow.  RSPB has undertaken studies of puffins in the past in Shetland, so Pete compared our puffling to similar birds. Our puffling was significantly lighter  (around 100g) than similar sized chicks.  We noticed that the chick had wounds on its back – looking like it has been pecked (rather than inflicted by a mammalian predator).  It didn’t feel undernourished though, with plenty flesh on its breastbone.

Initially, we assumed the chick had starved.  2012 has once more been a poor breeding season for many of Shetland’s seabirds – this is due to the lack of available food, particularly sand eels.  Our chick had been fed tiny sand eels early in the season, then sillocks (small pollock).  A couple of weeks ago, you may have noticed the chick was quite energetic, building up its muscles (you sometimes see it diddle up and down, strengthening the legs).  Viewers have commented that the chick was looking rather lethargic recently, perhaps this is because it wasn’t as big as it should be for its age, having not had enough good feeds.

We may never know exactly what happened to the puffling.  It appears that the chick was attacked by one or two puffins and that has led to its death.  Given its weight and behaviour, it could be that the chick was poorly and not well-fed enough to be strong enough to survive such a stressful incident. I think we’re safe to say that this is not normal behaviour in puffins.  We can’t help but cast our minds back to not seeing the chick last year and to the “ASBO” puffin of 2010.  Was it one or both of the parents who went for the chick?  Was it an “intruder?”  Could it be the parents were trying to provoke some sort of response in the chick as it was poorly? 

Personally, I am properly vexed about our puffin chick. It is difficult not to get attached to it -  it may be foolish, but I can’t help myself!  It is true that many of Shetland’s seabird species have suffered huge declines in population over the years, and each year many many chicks do not make it to adulthood. But there is something about our puffincam chick that is symbolic. Puffincam has been a wonderful tool to help raise awareness of puffins and seabirds in general.  It also has helped grow our knowledge of these much adored characters.  We hope it will continue long into the future.  If we can reveal more from the footage, we’ll keep you posted.  Until then – thank you for watching puffincam.  We hope you continue to enjoy watching them here at Sumburgh Head, and follow  the fortunes of their neighbours – the fulmars. 

By request from a viewer  - please click here for a link to footage from happier times on Puffincam.  Unfortunately, we do not have footage of fledling puffins.  We'll reveal more in a future post about our puffin productivity monitoring.

Please do look through the RSPB website to find out how we  can help the marine environment and support our work.  We can all do our bit –from helping beach-cleans, acting against climate change, lobbying for Marine Protected Areas, sponsoring a puffin and so on.  Long-term monitoring of seabirds is so extremely important to help us better understand the marine environment, and so protect our seas.  RSPB undertake monitoring all around the UK, as do other bodies such as SOTEAG/Aberdeen University, Fair Isle Bird Obeservatory, Scottish Natural Heritage, BTO and many more groups, volunteers and organsiations.  They all combine to add to the bigger picture.

If you would like to support the work of the RSPB having watched puffincam, please do contact us at shetland@rspb.org.uk or call us on 01950 460800.  Visit www.shetland.org  to find out more about visiting or living in Shetland.  It’s an excellent website.

  • Can we put the sad death of this puffin in to some perspective?

    On a recent drive between Lerwick and Sumburgh I counted eleven birds either lying dead by the roadside or spread across the tarmac as a bloody mess of squashed flesh, guts and broken feathers. As well as several breeds of gull there were at least three shalders and one tirrick. On many occasions I have seen birds that have been badly injured by motor vehicles wandering in fields to suffer a lingering and painful death.

    I don’t believe for one minute that any of these birds were accidentally hit. There seems to be a belief held by many Shetland drivers that all birds alighting on the roads are legitimate targets. These drivers may think that they are ridding Shetland of vermin by using their motor vehicles as lethal weapons. In fact they are using their vehicles to cause death and suffering and leaving a bloody mess in their wake.

    You don’t see this sort of carnage elsewhere in the country. ‘Road-kill’ has become a drivers ‘sport’ in Shetland and it has being going on for years – it is high time the RSPB spoke out against this.

    Allen Fraser

    Shetland Geotours, Meal, Hamnavoe, Burra.

  • I am also so saddened by these news, having followed every day since the beginning of May.

    As for humanizing birds, I can't see why grief should be unique to humans. As long as we believe in parallell evolution, why should not other species have evolved the same feelings? We almost know for certain elephants mourn their dead now.

    As I watch what I assume is one of the puffin parents outside the burrow, I am taken back a month when a pair of city pigeons I let nest on my balcony, lost their young ones to a gull. They cooed very strange for a couple of days, petted a lot and were obviously grieving.

    It took them almost a week to recover to their "normal ways", so where I agree that birds and animals don't have human emotions, I can't see why we as a species should claim to be the only ones *with* emotions.

    And thanks again for all the happy moments I've had with the puffincam, the effort you behind it have made and crossing fingers for Tammie and Norie next year!

  • Vicky, your words are our words!

    We have gathered today in this community...  and we also are so sad to have lost *our* peerie fluffy chick. Thanks to Helen and to all at Promote Shetland and RSPB volunteers, for their priceless work and dedition.

  • I second every word that you have written here Vicki.

  • Thank you so much for keeping us informed, Helen.  I'm grief stricken for our little puffin.  I'd like to add that you're right and I too believe that we must be careful to not humanize birds and animals.  I think it's to our credit that we can recognize  that they have very rich emotional and relationships.   In one nest I watched one of two chicks die about a week before fledging for no observable reason.  The live chick and the parents were extremely distressed and tried to feed it for days.  It was heartbreaking.  How can we not grieve for our feathered friends when we can see that they grieve for themselves?  In watching these nests we become emotionally invested, we cheer at each milestone, we (well, some of us anyway) yell at the computer screen as if they can hear us when we see them in trouble, we hope and sometimes pray for their well-being.  And we grieve at the disasters.  Again, thank you for writing such a difficult and caring post.