With its bright beak and those striking yellow 'eyebrows', the tufted puffin is one good-looking bird. It's also a bird in a good deal of trouble. In the southern reaches of its habitat, the species (Fratercula cirrhata) has been in drastic decline, with populations in the United States plummeting 85 to 90 percent in the past three decades. Where 30,000 birds once thrived, today no more than 4,000 remain.  

The poor puffin is so imperiled that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wants to see it listed under the US Endangered Species Act. This week, the environmental action group submitted a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list puffin populations along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington as 'endangered' (or, at the very least, as 'threatened').

13 02 2014 Puffins Endangered
Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Flickr

The threats to the puffin's long-term survival have one thing in common: we can blame them all on humans. When they're not getting entangled in our commercial fishing nets, the seabirds often find themselves caught up in oil slicks, with as many as 13,000 tufted puffins estimated to have been killed in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to the NRDC petition. Humans have also ensured that the fish puffins like to eat, such as sardines, herring and anchovies, are no longer as plentiful as they used to be. 

And perhaps the most serious danger is the one posed by our changing climate, and the effect this has on the birds' marine habitat. As the oceans and their food webs change, puffins are finding it hard to adapt and reproduce successfully.

The NRDC writes on its website:

Following the petition filed by NRDC today, FWS [the US Fish and Wildlife Service] now has 90 days to determine if our petition shows that an 'endangered' listing for the contiguous U.S. population of tufted puffin may be warranted. If it agrees, FWS will have another year to decide if it will, in fact, list the population under the ESA. As part of this process, FWS would solicit public comments, and it will be important that everyone who cares about saving the tufted puffin weigh in. If the contiguous U.S. population of tufted puffin is listed, it and its habitat will receive legal protection from harm. For example, limits could be put on fishing of certain fish populations that are critical to the puffin’s diet.  

For more information, visit the NRDC. 

Top header image: Nathan Hamm, Flickr