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Q&A: Sue Schubel, the Puffin Prof
Global Warming: Seeding the Ocean

Tracking bar-tailed godwits, painkiller-producing plants; more.


Jose Azel

Q&A: Sue Schubel
The Puffin Prof

Sue Schubel has been championing Atlantic birdlife for more than two decades as a field researcher and, since 2000, as outreach educator for Audubon’s Project Puffin—a program that has reintroduced a once-dwindling population of Atlantic puffins to its original nesting islands in Maine. Last summer Schubel, a.k.a. “Seabird Sue,” was honored with a prestigious Disney Conservation Hero Award for her inspiring education efforts. We spoke with Schubel about her state’s charismatic wildlife and her pumped-up pupils.

Audubon: What do your programs focus on?
Schubel: Seabirds—but we can touch on a lot of conservation issues using puffins, which are excellent indicators of ocean health. Maine is the only state where Atlantic puffins nest, and not in very many places. People really latch on to them—mostly because they’re very cute.

How do you get kids excited about puffins?
We do a lot of hands-on things, like the “blubber mitt experiment,” which simulates the fact that seabirds such as puffins have a thick layer of fat to insulate their body. One hand goes in a double layer of plastic bags with nothing in between, and the other hand goes into one with a layer of shortening to separate the bags. You then dip your hands into ice water and feel the difference. Some kids are so dramatic about it, you’d think they were freezing to death.

It sounds like your zoology degree comes in handy. You also studied art—does that figure into your work?
All the time. I make a lot of things with the kids—it’s a very engaging, creative use of their minds and spirits. I’ve also painted murals on the walls at our Puffin Visitor Center in Rockland, Maine. One bathroom has an undersea scene with the whole predator-prey food web. Along a hallway I built a puffin borough out of big fake rocks that kids can climb into.

Puffin education seems to be going strong. How are the birds faring in the wild?
We have more breeding pairs than ever before [approaching 1,000].

How can individuals help protect seabirds?
They should do everything they can to maintain a clean and healthy ocean, which includes creating less waste and wasting less.

You’ve done so much for seabirds. Will you put the thousand-dollar Disney prize money toward your work?
It will no doubt be associated with puffins or seabirds. It may go to my “Earn a Seabird Smile” program, where people get a little smiling puffin button to congratulate them if they prove they’ve done something positive for the environment.

If you could deliver one message to kids everywhere, what would it be?
Connect with nature and care for the earth.

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Q&A: The Puffin Prof (An Extended Interview)
Learn more about the creative ways Sue Schubel gets kids excited about seabirds.