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Iceland Mag


Photos: This year's pysja rescue confirms 2017 was best year on record for pufflings

By Staff

  • The Pysja Patrol Local kids in Vestmannaeyjar Islands organize "pysja patrols" to rescue wayward pufflings who wander into town, rather than fly out to sea. The kids then take the pufflings to the Natural History center where they are counted, cleaned and measud, before they are released back to the sea. Photos/Sæheimar.

Puffin lovers have reason to rejoice as the puffin colony in the Vestmannaeyjar islands, off the south coast of Iceland, experienced a record year. At no time since systematic counting began have more young adolescent puffins been counted and measured by Sæheimar Natural History Center in Vestmannaeyjar islands. Vestmannaeyjar are home to the largest and most important puffin colonies in Iceland. Nearly a quarter of the world's puffins breed in the islands.

Pufflings or pysjas

Pysja rescue 2017

Pysja rescue 2017 Some pysjas must be cleaned before they are released. Photo/Sæheimar Natural History Museum

The Icelandic word for pufflings, puffin chicks or adolescent puffins is "pysja". A total of 4,814 pysjas were caught this year, more than at any time since systematic counting began in 2003. The previous record was set in 2015, when 3,831 pysjas were counted in Vestmannaeyjar. This year's pysjas were unusually large and fat: The average pysja weighed 285.7 grams (10.1 oz). The current record was set in 2003, when the average pysja was 288.3 gr (10.2 oz).

Read more: 5 Things you need to know about Puffins

Since the survival rate of pufflings is directly correlated with their size and weight the record weight and record size of this year's puffling cohort is welcome news. The puffin colony in Vestmannaeyjar island has been under stress for several years, due to changing conditions in the ocean south of Iceland. 

More than a fourth of all the pysjas which were weighed and measured at Sæheimar were tagged.

The "pysja season" and the "pysja patrols"

Pysja rescue 2017
A drink of water The pysjas take full advantage of the hospitality! Photo/Sæheimar Natural History Museum

The puffins are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their life out at sea. Puffins come to shore in the summer to breed. Puffins nest in burrows, where the young puffin chicks or pysja spend their first weeks and months. By fall the pysja leave the burrows, flying out to sea. However, the adolescent pysja are still unfamiliar with the larger world, and have yet to master the art of flight. They therefore frequently mistake the lights from towns as the moon and stars reflecting off the sea the pysjas frequently fly into town.

The town of Vestmannaeyjar in the Vestmannaeyjar islands frequently sees large flocks of pysja fly over town in September as the birds are leaving their burrows and heading to sea. The people of Vestmannaeyjar and other coastal towns close to puffin colonies are also used to meet confused little puffins wandering the streets, unsure of how to find their way back to the sea.

While this can be amusing, towns and villages are no places for the young pysja. The big world can overwhelm the little pysjas who don't know how to survive in the city. Frightened by unfamiliar sights and sounds the birds hide under cars or wander disoriented around the streets where can die of exhaustion or hunger or are killed as they are hit by cars or killed by cats. 

Pysja rescue 2017

Measuring and weighing The little pysjas get a full check-up before they are released to the wild. Photo/Sæheimar Natural History Museum

Each fall the inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar therefore collect these wayward pysjas. This rescue operation is traditionally handled by the children of the village, who create "pysja patrols" which collect pysjas in the town each night, keeping them in cardboard boxes and then taking them to the cliffs by the sea the next morning by throwing them into the wind, thus maximizing their chances of finding their way out to sea. Some of the more exhausted pysjas require more care, and the children of Vestmannaeyjar take great pride in nursing these young birds before they are released to the ocean. Since 2003 the pysja patrols have been taking all pysjas to Sæheimar Natural History Museum for a full check-up before they are released back into the wild.

This year's pysja season began relatively late. The first pysja was brought to Sæheimar on August 13, but the numbers didn't pick up until the end of August. By mid September the number of pysja began dropping as most had already left their nests for the ocean. The last pysjas arrived on 1st and 4th of October.

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