Donal Hickey: Puffins not out of puff

Donal Hickey: Puffins not out of puff

Scarcely a day passes without some story emerging about the ability of animals to adapt to changing conditions, especially in their search for food.

Research shows how puffins in Ireland are saving energy by not flying to areas where they can find fish to feed on. Instead, they are using strong tidal currents in the Irish Sea to move almost effortlessly between patches of fish.

All of which prompts the thought that novel ways of how animals search for food may be more prevalent than previously believed. A study of GPS-tracked puffins from Little Saltee, Co Wexford, shows they are using tidal currents for a free ride across feeding areas, saving them up to 46% of their energy.

The two-year study by the Energy, Climate and Marine Research Centre, UCC, and the Zoological Society of London, is believed to be the first to use GPS tracking of puffins.

“Puffins are listed as an endangered species in Europe and we really don’t know enough about them,” said Alison Debney of the zoological society.

Previous seabird tracking studies have shown that birds travel between often distant patches at sea for food. The effort to fly between these patches of prey can be considerable, particularly for puffins whose wings are short and adapted for swimming underwater and chasing down their preferred food, namely sand eels.

“We have long suspected that animals are able to adapt their foraging behaviour to the local environment, and this is an excellent example of how animals can surprise us with their ingenuity,” said Ashley Bennison, lead author of the study.

We are reminded of Michael Kirby, a farmer, fisherman, folklorist, naturalist and gifted writer, who would have understood. He intimately knew the Skellig rocks and surrounding areas, in South Kerry, internationally recognised for their colonies of seabirds.

Kirby, from Ballinskelligs, spent almost a century observing wildlife and left us several books. In Skelligs Calling, he recorded much that he saw on land and sea. Puffin Island is a local landmark, which he describes as an undisturbed sanctuary where birds can live and breed without much human interference.

Kirby often saw young puffins being fed tiny silver sprats and sand eels by both parents. Puffins do not dive from the sky, but submerge and swim beneath the surface for long periods, searching for small fish, he noted.

“I have watched puffins flying towards the Skelligs from far out to sea, their beaks laden with silver sprats. Young puffins are spirited to sea on moonlit nights: how this is done remains a mystery to me,” wrote Kirby, who lived to be 99.

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