Rid­ers on the STORM

Puffins – they laugh in the face of 200km/h winds!

World of Knowledge (Australia) - - History -

Its first steps are ten­ta­tive. Af­ter all, its legs aren’t used to steady ground. This young At­lantic puf­fin has spent four years on the high seas – with­out once re­turn­ing to dry land. It has seen waves higher than a house and flown through 200km/h win­ter storms. It has dived through salt wa­ter colder than ice. “And it has found the love of its life,” says Stephen Kress.

The Amer­i­can or­nithol­o­gist has been ob­serv­ing the colonies of puffins in New­found­land for more than 30 years. He has ded­i­cated his life to re­search­ing the species, “be­cause these an­i­mals sym­bol­ise the mean­ing of life like no other liv­ing be­ings.” Ev­ery year the same cou­ple pair up in the same colony. They bur­row a hol­low on the edge of a steep cliff, fur­nish their home with sea­weed and feath­ers, and raise a sin­gle chick there. The house­proud par­ents keep it warm and clean, and fly tire­lessly round the clock to catch small fish with which to feed their nestling.

But af­ter five to six weeks some­thing weird hap­pens, some­thing vir­tu­ally un­heard of in the bird world: the young puf­fin crawls out of its hol­low for the first time in its life, top­ples over the cliff into the sea – and van­ishes. Lit­tle hatch­lings who have never seen the sun, never learnt how to catch fish; whose wings are too weak to carry their bod­ies, whose feath­ers have never got wet; these young things now tum­ble into the bit­terly cold dark blue wa­ter, pad­dle out to sea and never look back. It’s as if they are born to be called into the At­lantic. And as if their elders know how pow­er­ful this call is, for they stand mo­tion­less next to one an­other at the en­trance to their bur­row, watch­ing their off­spring leap into the un­known.

The North At­lantic is con­sid­ered one of the most dan­ger­ous oceans in the world, even in sum­mer. But in win­ter it is noth­ing less than a hellish night­mare of mon­ster waves, fields of pack ice and bliz­zards. What hap­pens to the chicks out at sea? “It might sound un­be­liev­able,” says Kress, “but they learn to catch fish and sort them in their mouths. They ac­cli­ma­tise to the sun and the Earth’s mag­netic field and get the hang of nav­i­ga­tion. They spread their wings and be­come sur­pris­ingly fleet fliers.”

Four years pass be­fore the an­i­mals reach adult­hood and be­come ac­quainted with the puf­fin they will spend the rest of their lives with. To­gether the new pair re­treat to their colony to raise their own sin­gle chick, be­fore watch­ing on proudly as it fol­lows the call of life.

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