Atlantic puffin at Le Nichoir

Air CanadaLe Nichoir sends plucky Atlantic puffin to the East Coast

Last December, Le Nichoir received a special visitor in the form of an Atlantic puffin, a first in the Centre’s history. Chantal Brault, a veterinary technician at Hudson Veterinary Hospital, found the bird on busy Guy St. in downtown Montreal. When she realized it was not a seagull but a puffin that usually makes its home near the ocean, Chantal took the bird to the veterinary hospital and then on to Le Nichoir.

At Le Nichoir’s winter quarters in Hudson, the bird was quickly set up in a freshwater tub and fed smelt (fish left over from last summer’s Ring-billed Gull episode). The puffin was also given a meshed area for resting, along with a mirror for some “company.”

Next, the puffin was weighed and given a check-up. The bird was underweight and had lost some of its waterproofing. This is not uncommon in birds that spend their whole lives on the ocean and suddenly find themselves in a different environment, and potentially injured. In such cases, a seabird may not be able to maintain its feathers in pristine condition. Feathers are crucial to survival, and a bird that loses its waterproofing will succumb to the elements.

Because Le Nichoir does not currently have facilities to accommodate seabirds on a long-term basis, the puffin needed to be transferred to a specialized facility. Le Nichoir wanted to consult a professional who had both knowledge of, and experience with, puffins to ensure that the bird was in good health and good feather condition before it was released.

After speaking to qualified wildlife veterinarians, rehabilitators and biologists in the Maritimes, Quebec and abroad, Le Nichoir concluded that it was in the best interest of the puffin to send it to Newfoundland for proper care before its release.

This decision rested on many factors. For one, the majority of Atlantic puffins in North America breed in Newfoundland. In winter they migrate to the Gulf Stream, so we’re more likely to find puffins in the waters off Newfoundland at that time of year than anywhere else in Canada.

“The Gulf Stream brings warmer waters and lots of food offshore, from the Caribbean and Florida, along the eastern U.S. and up to Newfoundland, before veering off towards the U.K. and Ireland,” explained Lynn Miller, co-founder of Le Nichoir. “Puffins and (other) seabirds use this massive warm current to feed and overwinter along, ensuring they can survive the winter and prepare for their breeding season, which will bring them back to Canadian shores.”

Finding Newfoundland rehabilitator Stan Tobin, who specializes in the care of seabirds (and puffins in particular), was another factor that contributed to Le Nichoir’s decision. Stan, who works for the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Association, shared Le Nichoir’s determination to ensure the bird was properly cared for and in the best possible condition for a successful release.

Our next task was to find an appropriate commercial flight for the bird’s relocation to the East Coast. This proved difficult. So Le Nichoir approached a friend of the Centre’s at CBC for possible contacts in the airline industry. Even though CBC was the only media outlet we contacted, the story of the puffin went viral.

Le Nichoir could not have anticipated the amount of attention the puffin would generate. “Our main priority was to stay focused on what we thought was in the best interest of the bird,” said biologist Susan Wylie, Le Nichoir’s Executive Director. “So we coordinated with the media to make sure the bird was not stressed by the high volume of attention it was getting.”

Once a flight was secured and the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) notified, Le Nichoir placed the bird on an Air Canada passenger plane headed for St. John’s, Newfoundland. On December 22, Stan Tobin met the puffin at the airport, where local CWS officers banded the bird for future identification.

The puffin adjusted immediately upon arrival at Stan’s rehabilitation facility in Ship Cove. After a week under Stan’s observation, the bird gained substantial weight and rebuilt its waterproofing. Then the Canadian Coast Guard auxiliary in Newfoundland offered to release the puffin, which it did on January 6 at the Grand Banks during one of its scheduled trips.

Le Nichoir could not have asked for a happier ending to this story. All along, the Centre’s mission was to return the puffin back into the wild, and with the help of experts and the greater public across Canada, the puffin was able to do just that.