Haystack Rock is an iconic destination for human tourists and tufted puffins.
This solitary, soil covered, monolithic complex at Cannon Beach, Oregon, dotted with some vegetation, provides nesting grounds for several species of shore birds. Tufted Puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) are among them. During mating season, females and males alike grow their brow feathers shaped like combed back cream tufts, and their beaks become bright orange and their faces white. This earned the birds a nickname: “the parrots of the sea.”
60 years ago, they were very common on the West Coast and about 800 of them would be nesting on the Haystack Rock each season. Their number has since been declining, stabilizing in the last ten years at around 130. The exact cause of declining puffin numbers is still unknown but may be attributed to general climate change.
This ebbing trend has been observed along the Pacific rim, with evidence of massive puffin die-offs in Alaska. In 2015, the state of Washington listed tufted puffins as endangered. With dwindling numbers of birds, Washington, Oregon, and California attempted to list the bird as an endangered species federally. In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied puffins the federal protection, reasoning that the species is only suffering in those three states and not in Alaska, adding according to OPB that “the majority of the range-wide population of 3 million is stable or increasing, particularly around the northern Pacific Rim.”
For now, a group of Oregon puffin lovers consisting of volunteers and scientists launched a campaign: Protect Our Puffins. They approached the nonprofit group Friends of Haystack Rock to house it. Every year around July 4, they organize an event called Puffin Watch, setting up scopes to the east of the rock to raise awareness about the birds.
Because of their initiative, in 2020, Cannon Beach passed a “No Fireworks” ordinance to limit the disturbance to nesting seabirds. They are also organizing yearly surveys of the bird population.
But puffin lovers have a long-term goal in mind. Disappointed with the outcome of the petition for federal protection, the group pivoted to fund research determining whether the tufted puffins that live along the California Current might be genetically distinct from the more populous puffins to the north. Confirming genetic differences might help in negotiating federal protection under the Endangered Species Act for these southern relatives.
If you want to know more or help out, contact the Friends of Haystack Rock.
By Joanna Rosińska