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Penny the Puffin by Carina Kusaka, Oregon State University

To communicate my research to a wider audience, my goal is to write and illustrate a children's book about the conservation of tufted puffins. Using tufted puffin as a flagship species, I plan to catalyze public engagement in coastal habitat conservation and emphasize the inclusion of underrepresented groups in ecology. Carina Kusaka, Oregon State University


Tufted puffin dives for fish on the Oregon coast
Tufted puffins are an iconic species in the Pacific Northwest that provide a wide range of ecological, economic, and historically important services such as ecotourism for local communities- and bringing marine derived nutrients to terrestrial habitats.

The narrative will focus on our main character, Penny the Puffin, who needs to leave her current island home and family. What was once a lush, vegetated island, has now become so bare, she has no material to build her nest. 

Adult tufted puffin feeds baby puffin
Adult tufted puffin feeds fish to a juvenile puffin. Illustration by Carina Kusaka. Permission agreement on file. 

Penny will embark on a journey along the Pacific Northwest coast in search of a new home. As she travels to different islands, readers will learn about the habitat characteristics tufted puffins require, and how climate processes can affect them. 

Happy seals swim at the Oregon Coast
Seals swim along the Oregon Coast. Modeling animal movement through landscapes is a key component to understanding population ecology, how populations can be managed, how human actions impact the population.

For example, one island is too hot, the next island does not have enough fish for her to eat, another island is overrun by raccoons and invasive mammals, and the next island has people climbing all over it! As she travels along the coast, readers will learn about interesting seabirds, marine mammals, and tidal invertebrates who befriend her on her journey. Carina Kusaka, Oregon State University.

Bright tufted puffin birds nesting on rocks on the Oregon Coast.
Tufted puffins are an iconic species in the Pacific Northwest that provide a wide range of ecological, economic, and historically important services such as ecotourism for local communities- and bringing marine derived nutrients to terrestrial habitats. Tufted puffin populations on the Oregon Coast have declined dramatically over the past 30 years from over 5,000 birds in 1989 to only 550 birds in 2021. 
Tufted puffin birds roost on the rocks along the Oregon Coast.
In 2018, the tufted puffin Species Status Assessment determined that factors related to breeding site conditions are one of the most probable causes of puffin decline; however, little is known about the specific characteristics of nesting habitat along the Oregon Coast. To address this knowledge gap, we used aerial photography and ground truthing to examine changes in suitable breeding habitat for tufted puffins on the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge over the past few decades. Assessing how suitable puffin breeding habitat characteristics have changed over time will provide necessary information to guide refuge managers in habitat restoration and support adaptive management decisions. 
Colorful tufted puffin bird flying over the Oregon Coast
Tufted puffin flying over the Oregon Coast. The Tufted Puffin – a seabird of the North Pacific Rim – has evinced steep declines off the west coast of the continental United States in recent years, but it is less clear that the species is declining in the northern portion of its range. Therefore, while the species’ range appears to be contracting, the overall trends in abundance are less clear. Lack of a coordinated monitoring plan across the range reduces the ability to make robust inference about trends and to investigate dynamics that may be driving changes in abundance and distribution (source: Washington CRU). 

Species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) are defined as having small patchily distributed populations in heterogeneous environments. SGCN typically require active conservation and management efforts to maintain viable populations. Population isolation due to fragmentation combined with habitat loss and human disturbances can further reduce these already small populations leading to greater extinction risk. Human population growth and development is accelerating in the Pacific Northwest at unprecedented rates, forcing many SGCN populations into smaller, patchier areas. Additionally, these populations are increasing threatened by accelerating water development and increased exposure to contaminants that are further exacerbated climate change.


The objective of this project is to evaluate how fragmentation and habitat degradation and loss in conjunction with anthropogenic development negatively affect the population viability of SGCN in the Pacific Northwest. Carina is working with federal and state partners to identify an SGCN species (or multiple species) whose populations could benefit from in depth evaluation of existing data and estimation of the effects of potential conservation actions or strategies.


Carina is partnering with cooperating agencies in the region to identify focal SGCN species for in depth evaluation and will compile the best information on the species to facilitate an assessment of the species status. Carina and the USGS researchers will revisit and revise the recovery objectives for the species if they exist. If they do not, the research team will work with the agency partners to identify conservation objectives.

Project deliverables:

Using the information compiled, Carina will then develop quantitative decision support tools for assessing the potential success of conservation actions and strategies and conduct sensitivity analyses to identify key uncertainties for future study. The analyses will also include recommendations for future monitoring designs.