Light Pollution and its Effects on Atlantic Puffins and Leach’s Storm-Petrels

By: Mary Alliston Butt

Light pollution is the usage of artificial lights, such as streetlights, car lights, business signs, etc., which brighten the natural dark night skies. Throughout the world, we are seeing the effects light pollution has upon our nature from sea turtle hatchlings venturing inland, disrupting coral spawning, to hindering circadian (sleep) cycles of humans to wolves to insects.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we are seeing detrimental effects of light pollution on the Atlantic Puffin and Leach’s Storm-Petrels during fledging season. Newfoundland and Labrador is home to some of the world’s largest populations of these birds, with the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve hosting the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in North American, and the world’s second largest colony of Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Both Puffins and Petrels return to land, simply to reproduce. They dig burrows for nests and lay one egg in May or June, which is incubated by both parents. After approximately 7 weeks later the chicks hatch and begin leaving their nests in late summer and early fall (during the fledging season) to make their way out to sea, floating for at least 3 years. Fledging occurs during the night to avoid predators, using the moon and stars as their navigation system, leading them to the ocean. However, artificial lighting is causing the light pollution to overpower the brightness of the stars and the moon, confusing these young chicks. When exiting their burrows, they often see bright lights which to them are the moon, but lead them to coastal communities, stranding them inland.

Witless Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, at Night looking from Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. PC: Emma Corbett
Atlantic Puffin Chick, Photo Credit: Emma Corbett

As a seabird, Puffins and Petrels find locomotion on land very difficult and rely on the ocean for its food source, usually capelin. Being on land, they are unable to return to sea on their own, are susceptible to predation, starvation, and being struck by vehicles. This issue is extreme in the surrounding communities of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland, due to the island’s close proximity to land, the increasing development of the region, and the high population of birds present. However, these strandings are happening across the province, across the country, and the world, with not only these birds but other species as mentioned. Oil platforms and large boats are also facing these issues with stranded birds due to their light pollution.

Puffins begin to fledge August to September, while Petrels fledge September to October. During these seasons please turn off all unnecessary lights, install cutoff shades to streetlights and house lights to reduce the upward glow, use motion sensors around your property, try warmer coloured lights such as amber (all lights should be under 4000K no matter the colour), use window coverings on windows facing the coastline, and report any puffins or petrels to Canadian Wildlife Services. Both birds are listed under the IUCN red list due to their historically low populations, any effort to ensure they make their way out to sea is a win for these beautiful birds. Research your area to understand what species are being affected by artificial lighting and encourage others to be dark sky friendly.

For more information on Puffin and Petrels in Newfoundland and Labrador and how you can help, check out Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Newfoundland and Labrador’s Puffin and Petrel Program at https://cpawsnl.org/puffinpetrelpatrol/.


Mary Alliston Butt
CaNOE Director-at-Large
Ocean Conservation Coordinator, CPAWS-NL

Mary Alliston Butt has always had a passion for the environment, and a special interest in the ocean. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Ecology and Conservation Biology from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She then continued her studies by moving to the small town of Isafjordur, Iceland to complete her Master of Resource Management from the University of the Westfjords. Throughout her education, she has taken advantage of an array of field work from researching invasive Green Crabs in Newfoundland, to Humpback Whales in Iceland. Her experiences and education have made her dreams a reality, helping to protect the oceans around us.