» Download Audio
In Iceland, millions of fat-beaked birds form the world's largest colony of Atlantic puffins. Sixty percent of the world's population breeds there; some end up on dinner plates. And local conservationists aren't upset. Natalie Pawelski explains. Natalie Pawelski explains.
On the bird world scale of cuteness, puffins rank pretty high up there. And in Iceland's Westman Islands, one of the biggest puffin colonies in the world, locals love these colorful. chubby birds -- on the wing or on the menu. It's weird to eat something that looks like a beanie baby.
Oh, I was thinking that it was this cute little bird. But in the interest of journalism... Tastes like chicken. It doesn't taste like chicken. Actually, it tastes like liver. But more important, puffins are an example of what -conservationists call "a sustainable hunt." While individual animals are killed, the species thrives.
In the 1890s, puffin feathers became fashionable. Hunters here in the Westman Islands used big nets to catch hundreds of the birds at once. In just a few years, they almost wiped out the entire puffin population. Using big nets has been illegal ever since. Since then, puffin hunters go after individual birds, with sort of overgrown lacrosse stick.
They follow strict traditions. For example, if the puffin has fish in its beak, it's going home to feed its -young, so you don't kill it. If the puffin looks you in the eye, you don't kill it. And if the puffin cries -- and yes, they tell me puffins really can cry -- you don't kill it. So plenty of puffins escape to make more puffins.
GISLI OSKARSSON, BIOLOGY TEACHER
You look at them as good birds. They are kind and good, until they bite you.
Gisli Oskarsson is a biology teacher and cameraman, known as "the puffin man." He studied and filmed the birds for years.
Twenty-five percent of the Atlantic puffin is here, on these tiny islands you see here around you.
And this is the only area where their population is growing. They're decreasing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Puffin parents dig nesting burrows into the cliffs, and spend their days fishing for their families.
They can dive down to 57 meters at least. And they stay under water for about 60 seconds.
Each year as Iceland's brief summer draws to a close, some young puffins trying to make their way to the sea are confused by the lights of the Westman Island's only town. Children gather up the lost birds and set them free, so they can end up the next generation of puffin parents, or maybe as somebody's dinner.