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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The Atlantic puffin population is at risk in the United States, and there are signs the seabirds are in distress in other parts of the world.

In the Gulf of Maine, the comical-looking seabirds have been dying of starvation and losing body weight, possibly because of shifting fish populations as ocean temperatures rise, according to scientists.

The survival rates of fledglings on Maine's two largest puffin colonies plunged last summer, and puffins are in declining health at the largest puffin colony in the Gulf, on a Canadian island about 10 miles off eastern Maine. Dozens of emaciated birds were found washed ashore in Massachusetts and Bermuda this past winter, likely victims of starvation.

Whether dead puffins will continue washing up on shore and puffin chick survival rates will stay low remains to be seen. But there are enough signals suggesting that puffins and other seabirds could be in trouble, said Rebecca Holberton, a professor at the University of Maine who has studied puffins for years.

"It's our marine canary in a coal mine, if you will," she said.

The situation has drawn the attention of scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., who are looking at how shifting fish populations can affect the productivity of puffins, as well as Arctic terns.

With its colorful striped beak, pear-shaped body and amusing waddle, the Atlantic puffin is sometimes called the clown of the sea. It's also held up as a poster child for successful seabird restoration. [continue]

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