Stephen W. Kress & Derrick Z. Jackson 2015. Project Puffin. New Haven: Yale University Press. 357 pp.

A thoroughly engaging book by an enthusiast birdo driven to re-establish a colony of Atlantic Puffins on a rocky islet (Egg Rock, off the coast of Maine), from which they had been exterminated a hundred years earlier. The colony at Egg Rock is once again the southern-most breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins so as the author freely admits, this is tinkering at the margins of a species not threatened elsewhere (although in slow decline). But for a good cause: learning more of the biology of the species; creating substantial good will and support for puffin and other bird conservation; learning techniques to apply to other sea birds at risk.

The plan was to transfer chicks from a populous colony in Canada, raise them in artificial burrows on Egg Rock, then let the fledged chicks go to sea and hope they come back to breed. Which they eventually did, but only after nearly 8 years. Lots of lessons were learned by Stephen Kress and his army of helpers: the value of persistence; the importance of watching the rest of the community and managing it to advantage (puffins nest with terns because the terns keep gulls away and gulls eat puffin chicks). Other lessons, however, seem not to have been learned, for example don’t leave a country boy from Ohio (Kress) in charge of small boats on a dangerous coast. It is a miracle that no-one was drowned, one of the near victims being the elderley doyen of US birdos, Roger Tory Petersen. However their dedication and persistence is admirable.

This is a strictly wildlife conservation-oriented treatment. If you wanted to know more of puffin diversity and about related species of seabird, you would have to look elsewhere. For instance, the reader after finishing the book remains unaware this is only one of 3 puffin species (the other two: Tufted Puffin and Horned Puffin being confined to the North Pacific). Or the interesting biogeographic observation that the two Pacific species are not sister taxa (the nearest relative of the Atlantic Puffin is the Horned Puffin). Or that the Tufted Puffin is possibly not even a puffin at all, instead an auklet. Or that there are 24 species in total in the family containing puffins (Alcidae), not counting the extinct Great Auk. Some of this stuff is bound to be of significance to the biology and conservation of puffins and relatives, so would have deserved inclusion for those reasons alone.

Besides the puffin story, there are other interesting chapters, notably the early chapter on the early history of the Audubon society and the imperfect conservation credentials of John James Audubon, and one of the final chapters on applications of various “Project Puffin techniques” to endangered colonies of other seabird species (chick translocation; predator management; social reinforcement by audio playback of calls).

There is also a chapter “Reconsidering the balance of nature”, devoted to ruminations on the evident need for human management of the natural world to maintain many species that would otherwise succumb to direct and indirect disturbance by humans.