Researchers have fitted tracking devices to puffins to keep tabs on their activity. Photo: Federica Bisso

New puffin research swoops around UCC

Those poor birdies! Puffins lose the ability to fly for up to 2 months every year, twice as long as previously believed, research from Cork has indicated.

Researchers at UCC have suggested that the seabirds are vulnerable to winter storms due to their inability to fly after moulting their feathers.

Puffins must shed and regrow their feathers when they wear and lose shape, a process known as moulting. When they moult their wing feathers, they also lose the ability to fly, leaving them bound to the water surface.

The timing and location of the flightless moult of puffins has long been a mystery to scientists because it occurs when puffins are far from land and out of sight.

However, the Marine Ecology Group from the School of Biological Environmental and Earth Sciences and the MaREI Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre at UCC fit tracking devices to the birds to keep tabs on their activity.

The group, in collaboration with researchers from the UK and Norway, put tiny loggers on the legs of puffins that record their behaviour.

Lead author Jamie Darby said: “These loggers record time spent on the water or in flight every 10 minutes over the course of a year. We were able to look for extended periods of time when puffins don’t fly at all to study where and when they were flightless.”

The results, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, show that puffins were flightless from 1 to 2 months per year.

The team was able to explain why this is significant.

“This moult occurs when puffins are way out in the Atlantic, and when weather conditions can be dangerous for a flightless seabird. Puffins are in decline, and often wash up dead on our coasts following severe weather. Winter cyclones in the North Atlantic are likely to become more frequent and more severe with climate change,” said Mr Darby.