Iceland Mag

9 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Birds

A puffin chick is called a pysja: the life and adventurers of the adolescent puffin

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • A pysja being rescued Each fall the children of Vestmannaeyjar town in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands rescue hundreds and thousands of "pysja" who have gotten lost on their way to sea, releasing them to back to the sea where they will spend the winter. Photo/Vísir.

During September and October the puffin leaves shore for the open sea where they spend the rest of autumn and winter in the freezing cold of the North Atlantic. For the young birds that hatched in the spring this first journey of their lives can be both challenging and dangerous.

Read more: 5 Things you need to know about Puffins

A puffin chick which is called “pysja” in Icelandic, stays in its parent‘s burrow throughout summer as the parents feed it. The pysja are primarily fed Raitt’s sand eels, also known as lesser sand eel, a small fish which a maximum length of 25 cm (9.8 inches).

Pysjas are drawn to the bright lights of the big city, or even small village
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.

Read more: Spotting puffins: here is our map showing the best places around Iceland

The town of Vestmannaeyjar in the Vestmannaeyjar islands, which is home to some of the largest puffin colonies in the world, 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. 

The annual pysja rescue takes place in September
Each fall the inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar therefore collect these wayward pysjas. This rescue operation is traditionally handled by the children of the village, who 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.

Visitors in Vestmannaeyjar can witness the pysja rescue and release during the “pysja season”, which peaks in September, but there are always some pysjas being rescued and released as late as October.

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