puffin
Jason Crotty

The new poster child for climate change had his coming-out party in June 2012, when Petey the puffin chick first went live into thousands of homes and schools all over the world. The "Puffin Cam" capturing baby Petey's every chirp had been set up on Maine's Seal Island by Stephen Kress, "The Puffin Man," who founded the Audubon Society's Project Puffin in 1973. Puffins, whose orange bills and furrowed eyes make them look like penguins dressed as sad clowns, used to nest on many islands off the Maine coast, but 300 years of hunting for their meat, eggs, and feathers nearly wiped them out. Project Puffin transplanted young puffins from Newfoundland to several islands in Maine, and after years of effort the colonies were reestablished and the project became one of Audubon's great success stories. By 2013, about 1,000 puffin pairs were nesting in Maine.

Now, thanks to a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the Puffin Cam offered new opportunities for research and outreach. Puffin parents dote on their single chick, sheltering it in a two-foot burrow beneath rocky ledges and bringing it piles of small fish each day. Researchers would get to watch live puffin feeding behavior for the first time, and schoolkids around the world would be falling for Petey.

But Kress soon noticed that something was wrong. Puffins dine primarily on hake and herring, two teardrop-shaped fish that have always been abundant in the Gulf of Maine. But Petey's parents brought him mostly butterfish, which are shaped more like saucers. Kress watched Petey repeatedly pick up butterfish and try to swallow them. The video is absurd and tragic, because the butterfish is wider than the little gray fluff ball, who keeps tossing his head back, trying to choke down the fish, only to drop it, shaking with the effort. Petey tries again and again, but he never manages it. For weeks, his parents kept bringing him butterfish, and he kept struggling. Eventually, he began moving less and less. On July 20, Petey expired in front of a live audience. Puffin snuff.

"When he died, there was a huge outcry from viewers," Kress tells me. "But we thought, 'Well, that's nature.' They don't all live. It's normal to have some chicks die." Puffins successfully raise chicks 77 percent of the time, and Petey's parents had a good track record; Kress assumed they were just unlucky. Then he checked the other 64 burrows he was tracking: Only 31 percent had successfully fledged. He saw dead chicks and piles of rotting butterfish everywhere. "That," he says, "was the epiphany."