12/20/2011 03:11 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Lost Atlantic puffin found thousands of kilometres from home: downtown Montreal

MONTREAL - A lost seabird, likely from the craggy coasts of Atlantic Canada, has been found more than 1,000 kilometres from home: waddling on a busy downtown Montreal street.

The disoriented Atlantic puffin, from a bird species that seldom comes into contact with humans, crash-landed last Thursday evening a couple of blocks from Crescent Street — one of the busiest nightlife strips in Canada.

The director of a local bird-rehabilitation centre, which took in the young puffin, said it's lucky to be alive.

"He was running in the street," Susan Wylie of Le Nichoir said in an interview Tuesday.

Wylie credited an observant veterinary technician, who happened to be nearby, for scooping the bird away from Guy Street's bustling traffic.

"Luckily, she knew what type of bird it was and grabbed him," Wylie said.

"And they don't run very quickly because they're diving birds."

The Atlantic puffin is the iconic, official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is home to nearly all Canadian puffin breeding grounds.

The rescued bird is believed to be in good health as it waits to catch a ride Thursday in the heated cargo bay of an Air Canada airplane to St. John's, closer to its likely home. Its flight itinerary includes one stop in Toronto, the centre said.

Once the puffin arrives in St. John's, a seabird expert will care for it until it can be released back into the wild.

In the meantime, the puffin will continue to bunk in a bathtub at a volunteer's home outside Montreal, where it has been munching on two daily meals of cut smelts and vitamin supplements.

The bird, which is about the size of three fists, is less than a year old and it's unclear whether it's male or female, she said.

"They like to swim and splash," Wylie, who is a biologist, said of Atlantic puffins.

"But generally speaking they're pretty quiet and they keep to themselves."

Workers at Le Nichoir have no idea how the puffin found its way to Montreal, but one theory is that it might have boarded a ship in Atlantic Canada and hitched a ride.

Wylie said the centre, which is based in the western Quebec town of Hudson, receives around 1,500 birds a year, but this was its first puffin.

But the puffin might not be as far away from home as some think, according to one seabird-behaviour expert.

Bill Montevecchi, a biologist at Newfoundland's Memorial University, said it might originate from a colony in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and could have flown to Montreal on its own.

He said while Montreal is far from this Atlantic puffin's likely home, the increasing number of city lights along the coasts are causing more and more of these birds to veer off course.

Montevecchi said puffins, particularly young ones, are often attracted by the lights.

"They're much more apt to get disoriented just because they haven't been around the block, essentially," said Montevecchi, who noted the Atlantic puffin is not a species at risk.

"It shouldn't be downtown Montreal, that's for sure."

To a seabird, the dark, glistening pavement of wet city roads may look a lot like the ocean from the air, he added.

The key now, he said, is getting the bird into the wild as soon as possible.

"The strategy, usually, is to rehydrate him, see if you can get him to eat a few fish and get him right back out there where he came from, or where we think he should be," he said.

Montevecchi also joked the puffin sighting will likely throw off this year's Montreal leg of the annual Christmas bird count, a days-long event when birding enthusiasts take a census of bird populations spotted in a designated area.

"They might not always have a puffin," he said.