You may have seen photos and videos circling the internet of people throwing baby puffins, or pufflings, off of cliffs. While you may have been shocked, it’s actually a common practice in Iceland. Once pufflings are ready to venture off on their own, they should make their way out to sea and join their flock. However, some of them can get stuck, so the communities around Iceland come together to help pufflings find their way home. This is called puffling season.
Puffins are sea birds in the Alcidae (Auk) family. Though their beak and black and white feathers look similar to a penguin, they are not closely related. Their close relatives include the guillemot and the razorbill. Puffins, along with other Auks, can fly, unlike penguins.
There are four species of puffin: the Atlantic, the horned, the tufted and the rhinoceros auklet. The Atlantic is the most common, found around the North Atlantic, including Iceland. Their name most likely derives from the large amount of down fur their babies have, often referred to as puff balls.
As the pufflings mature and get ready to head out to sea, they come out of their burrows at night and look to the moon for guidance — much like baby sea turtles. And unfortunately, pufflings often make their way toward what they think is the moon but is actually nocturnal, artificial light sources — or light pollution.
Because of light pollution, the pufflings get lost and find themselves stranded in the cities around Iceland. But locals in Iceland have started the tradition of puffling season, where they go out at night between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. with flashlights and cardboard boxes to catch the young puffins.
Some pufflings even get scooped up in the harbor, where the waters may be oily and polluted. In the morning, locals bring the collected pufflings to a cliff where they are then set on the edge or gently tossed in the air. The pufflings then make their way out to sea to join their flock, where they’ll stay for the next 3 to 4 years.