The Great Puffling Rescue
With their orange beaks and feet, tuxedoed 18cm (7-in.) tall bodies, and sad clown eyes, puffins are by common consent among the world's cutest creatures. Their air speed can reach 80kmph (50 mph), yet they flap awkwardly and frantically, like animals in cartoons who suspend themselves momentarily before crashing to earth. For centuries, Icelanders have hunted puffins by waving a kind of giant butterfly net over cliff ledges to catch them in mid-air. Most puffins breed in Iceland, and the Westman Islands boast Iceland's largest puffin colony. Though, in 2007, puffin numbers declined alarmingly; speculation is that warmer ocean waters have pushed their main food source, sand eels, farther north.
Puffins are usually monogamous for life, and -- unless they end up on a dinner plate -- have an average lifespan of 25 years. They usually return to the same breeding area, if not the same clifftop nesting burrow, and the females lay two eggs per year, but only one at a time. The pufflings hatch in around 42 days, and both parents gather fish for them. In mid-August the parents abandon the nest, and the pufflings are left to fend for themselves.
In late August, hundreds of hungry pufflings are attracted and disoriented by Heimaey's lights and end up crashing into yards and streets. Locals lock their cats inside, but let their children stay up late to gather the pufflings in cardboard boxes lined with soft fabric. The pufflings stay in the families' homes overnight. The next morning, the children take the pufflings to the sea and free them by tossing them high into the air. Visiting families are most welcome to participate.
A live internet "puffin cam" stationed on Heimaey's northeast corner can be viewed all summer at http://puffin.eyjar.is.