Two puffins on a rock

A Half-Century Ago, an Alum Had a Vision: Bring the Puffins Home

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Steve Kress, PhD ’75, looks back on a 50-year effort to restore the ‘clowns of the sea’ to their breeding grounds off the Maine coast

By Lindsay Lennon

It was the summer of 1969, and Steve Kress, PhD ’75, had just arrived in Maine—off the coast, on one of the craggy islands in Muscongus Bay—for a seasonal job as an ornithology instructor at Hog Island Audubon Camp. While studying up on the region’s native seabird populations, he came across a striking fact.

“I read that puffins used to breed on islands in the bay—and that led me to realize that humans caused them to disappear from excessive hunting,” recalls Kress, now a visiting fellow with the Lab of Ornithology. “But did it always have to be that way? Would it be possible to bring them back?”

By 1973, Kress—then a grad student in environmental education in CALS—had founded the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, with the aim of restoring the birds’ once-thriving populations. Now, 50 years later, he has answered both questions: no, a human-inflicted species disappearance is not beyond repair—and yes, the puffins could return.

Steve Kress holding a puffin
Kress with a puffin friend. (Bill Scholtz)

Although Maine still lists the birds as threatened, approximately 1,500 breeding pairs of the comical-looking, colorfully beaked creatures—nicknamed “clowns of the sea”—now nest on islands off its coast, thanks in large part to Project Puffin.

It’s one of the state’s most prominent conservation success stories, and Kress’s efforts have bolstered its tourism industry.

“Species come and go all the time,” observes Kress, former vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. “But when humans are the driving force of their disappearance, we have an obligation to try to bring a species back to where it can still live.”

A Puffin Paradise

While puffins were once plentiful in Northern Europe and Canada, in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were heavily hunted for their meat and feathers—to the point that when Kress arrived on the scene, there was just one known nesting pair in the entire U.S., on Maine’s Matinicus Rock. 

And at the time, there were no known examples of puffin colonies successfully relocating from one island to another—since, as he explains, the seabirds generally “make a life commitment to a particular place.”

Through a method Kress calls “social attraction,” he developed a simple but ingenious way of enticing birds to nest on a particular island—in this case, Eastern Egg Rock, about seven miles southeast of Hog Island.

When Kress arrived on the scene, there was just one known nesting pair in the entire U.S.

Since puffins have a natural tendency to return to their birthplaces to breed, the team spent years (working under official permits) transporting hundreds of Canadian chicks to Eastern Egg Rock.

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They hand-fed them inside artificial burrows and even used audio recordings and wooden decoys to make the island seem like it had an established colony.

The hope, Kress explains, was that once the fledged chicks matured at sea, many would return to breed. 

The cover of a Project Puffin book

“I thought this would be a simple thing,” muses Kress, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees (in zoology and wildlife management, respectively) from Ohio State University. “A summer or two, I’d just get some puffins and they’d come back and start a colony, and that’d be it.”

By 1981—eight years, plenty of naysayers, and some 950 transported puffin babies later—five pairs were nesting on Eastern Egg Rock, a figure that has grown steadily in the intervening decades.

The project has even garnered a partnership with the popular Barbara’s Puffins cereal brand, with Kress’s image gracing the back of its boxes for a time.

In 2015, he released a memoir, Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, published by Yale University Press. A version for young readers—The Puffin Plan: Restoring Seabirds to Egg Rock and Beyond—followed five years later.

Kress, who has twice served as director of the Hog Island camp, still summers in Maine with his wife (fellow alum Elissa Wolfson ’81) and hosts a weeklong puffin course for adult learners.

I thought this would be a simple thing; a summer or two, I’d just get some puffins and they’d come back and start a colony.

Project Puffin remains a fully staffed National Audubon operation, employing more than a dozen people.

Meanwhile, Kress notes, the puffin-populated islands of Muscongus Bay—both Eastern Egg and Matinicus Rock, where numbers have rebounded from that one nesting pair to more than 500—have become seasonal field stations for college-aged seabird scholars, from Cornell and beyond.

Though Kress retired as director of Project Puffin in 2019, the work he began is far from over.

U.S. puffins remain threatened, their colonies few and far between—making populations keenly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, avian illnesses, oil spills, predators, and other threats.

A puffin in flight
Adults bring fish back to their burrows to feed the chicks.

“There’s no end to the care they’re going to take,” he says. “It’s one thing to restore them—but leaving them would probably mean them disappearing from the places where we’ve brought them back.”

Nonetheless, Kress is optimistic about the birds’ future.

“Puffins are so charismatic; people care about them,” he says. “They’re one of those great voices of the ocean that people will listen to.”

Top photo by Steve Kress. All images provided unless otherwise indicated.

Published July 10, 2023


  1. Judith Shulman Weis, Class of 1962

    Our granddaughter Jessica Miner (Barnard ’23) has a summer job this summer with the puffin project!!!
    Judy (62) and Pete (60) Weis

  2. Dianne Meranus, Class of 1965

    We had just watched the CBS Sunday Morning segment about puffins & were so excited we wanted to have one (ha!ha!). Then we saw our Cornell e-mails & read about this fabulous Cornell alum’s work with the puffins. Congrats & keep up the good work.

  3. B. A. Puthaid

    Puffins play important roles in a couple of recent novels. A puffin can also be found on the cover of the first,’Emily.’

  4. Heather Neno Allen, Class of 2005

    When I was young I likened puffins to penguins, only an upgraded version, with colorful beaks that could fly. I am as partial to them today as I was in awe of them years ago. Congratulations Dr. Kress and thank you!

  5. Lucille Robbins, Class of 1958

    Saw a few while sailing the Maine coast in the eighties….

  6. Lawrence Cooper, Class of 1977

    I’m delighted to read about Dr. Kress’ lifetime of work to restore the Maine coast breeding habitat of the Puffin, this terrifically charismatic seabird.
    Ever since I encountered them off the Norwegian coast near the Westphalian islands I’ve been so enchanted by this seabird!
    May your legacy ensure continuity for the Puffin Colony off the Maine coast
    Lawrence Cooper
    Cornell ‘77
    Ps I enjoy Barbara’s Puffin cereal at home too!

  7. Bruce Esrig, Class of 1988

    Hardy Boats Cruises of New Harbor, Maine runs reasonably frequent tours to a local island where puffins nest.

  8. Donald Hughes, Class of 1986

    Steve Kress’s work goes to show what perserverance and human ingenuity can accomplish in conserving threatened species. Thank you, Dr. Kress, for your tremendous efforts!
    Keeping this and other bird popuations stable will depend on human society’s willingness to stop polluting the oceans and end its addiction to fossil fuels. Not an easy thing!

  9. Salim Chishti (David Adler), Class of 1972

    Great to see this important work still going on!

  10. Lewis B. Ward-Baker, Class of 1952

    A delight for our grand-children and great-grandchildren, during summer vacation times with us in New Harbor, has been a Hardy Boat puffin cruise mentioned in a previous comment. We are so very grateful to Dr. Kress for his vision and perseverance.

  11. Randolph (Randy) Little, Class of 1962

    Steve continues to do great work, engaging the public in the true fashion of “Doc” Allen, and introducing new generations to the wonders of nature. Our days together in the Wheaton Club of central Ohio afforded the opportunity to suggest Cornell and its Lab of Ornithology as a prime site for further graduate studies. Congratulations Steve!

  12. Lee Kass, Class of 1975

    Hi Steve,
    I remember your vision and so pleased to see it succeed.
    LBK (Ph.D. 1975)

  13. Ellen Solomon Chandler, Class of 1970

    I had a wonderful experience in 1986 on Seal Island, off the coast of Vinalhaven, ME where Audubon had recently established a puffin colony. There were 99 burrows dug into a hillside, each containing a baby puffin in Puffintown. Every day they’d be weighed in a little net bag and fed herring. The day I visited I helped and the little guys would fiercely bite my hand when I’d reach in. It was only the second year of the colony. When young puffins first fly off to sea they stay out for two years before returning to nest, so we didn’t yet know if the colony would succeed. The puffin buoys helped draw them back while the existing population of sea gulls were a problem as they’d eat the puffin eggs. The story has a happy ending. The colony is a success and you can hire boats from Vinalhaven to see the puffins in the early summer.

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