Hundreds of puffins have washed up dead or have been found in poor condition on the shores of the Canary Islands, which has raised serious concerns for Scotland’s population of the birds.

The discovery of a “massive” number of dead or dying Atlantic puffins has been reported by ornithologists and bird watchers on the beaches of the Spanish archipelago as well as on the coastlines of mainland regions such as Galicia and Asturias. 

It has led to calls by British ornithologists for urgent research to establish what is causing the deaths amid concerns that storms or changes in oceanography linked to climate change could be responsible. 

Last week, up to nine dead specimens were discovered on Zurriola beach in San Sebastian, while the Council of Tenerife’s Centre for the Recovery of Wild Fauna confirmed that as many as 140 dead puffins have been recovered from beaches along the Tenerife coastline in the past few days. 

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Juan Jose Ramos Melo, director of conservation organisation Birding Canarias, said: “Normally, the few puffins that do arrive at these latitudes do so exhausted, fleeing northern storms. Every year some arrive, we just don’t see them because they are on the high seas.” 

The discovery of dead or sick puffins “in practically all of the Canary Islands” has prompted the Spanish Ornithological Society to activate its “naufragos” (shipwrecked) project across the islands, which will see volunteers comb stretches of coastline in search of the birds to allow Spain’s main bird conservation charity to gather as much information as possible into the reason for the mass die-off.

The Spanish Ornithological Society confirmed to The Herald that, of the puffins discovered on the Spanish coastline with leg rings, more had been ringed in Scotland than in other locations. 

The organisation said that of the four most recent dead puffin finds in the northern regions of Galicia and Asturias, three had been ringed in Sule Skerry, a remote islet 40 miles west of Orkney, and one in Garbh Eilean in the Shiant Islands, a small group in the Outer Hebrides.

Scotland is home to more than 80 per cent of the British and Irish puffin population, with colonies in the Isle of May, Fair Isle, Lunga and Noss National Nature Reserve. Atlantic puffins are found across the North Atlantic Ocean, from the east coast of Canada and the US to western Europe and Russia. 

They spend most of their time at sea, landing on coasts and islands to form breeding colonies each spring.

Despite being one of the commonest seabirds in northern Europe, puffin populations have been in decline for decades, with a collapse in numbers of their staple diet, sand eels, being blamed.

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According to the RSPB, the main threat to puffins is the changes in distribution and number of small fish, while ground predators introduced to breeding colonies and pollution are also serious hazards.

Research from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology in 2021 also found that high chick mortality by starvation was being driven by puffins having to fly further to find food.

The discovery of dead Atlantic puffins in such numbers, thousands of miles from their breeding habitat, has confused experts and led to speculation that climate change could be a factor.

Dr Liz Humphreys, Principal Ecologist for seabirds at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “At this stage it’s hard to know exactly what is causing these unusual movements of birds outside their normal wintering locations and resulting in their deaths.

The Herald: Atlantic puffin found washed up in A Coruña, SpainAtlantic puffin found washed up in A Coruña, Spain (Image: The Spanish Ornithological Society)

“Avian influenza caused devastating losses at our breeding seabird colonies last year so it’s important to rule out that the virus isn’t causing changes in distribution or causing further birds to die. 

“Other reasons could be storms or changes in oceanography that could be linked to climate change, but further research is urgently needed.”

The RSPB confirmed that similar incidents have occurred in the past but remain “not fully understood”, with the exact causes of this particular incident “not yet known”.

A spokesperson said: “We know from leg rings that some of the birds were born in Scotland. Puffins winter at sea in the Atlantic before returning to their breeding grounds in the spring. 

“Incidents like this – sometimes called ‘seabird wrecks’ – have been recorded before but are not fully understood and the exact causes of this incident are not yet known. 

“Seabird wrecks are often associated with periods of bad weather and it is clear that this event coincides with storms in the area. However, seabirds can survive severe weather, and it appears that when birds are weakened by other factors – eg, difficulty in finding their prey fish – this can make them more vulnerable to storms.”