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Saving the birds

Translocating black-footed albatross chicks to combat habitat loss

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Black-footed Albatross decoy

A decoy setup at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.

The black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), or Ka‘upu, is a native Hawaiian seabird that inhabits the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They were historically abundant in this part of the archipelago, but introduced predators such as rats, cats and mongooses destroyed their breeding colonies during the 20th century. Following eradication of invasive predators from many of these remote islands, today more than 60,000 pairs, or 98 percent of the population, nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

Despite this recovery, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are at high risk for erosion and loss due to sea levels rising. Multiple climate change models suggest that a two-meter increase in sea level would lead to a 25 percent loss in land area of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

Several conservation strategies exist for these birds, but the most effective long-term strategy may be to increase the number of colonies at higher elevations, such as on the main Hawaiian Islands.

Efforts to create new black-footed albatross colonies are time sensitive. Thus, wildlife managers deemed it necessary to translocate chicks from nesting sites in their current territory to a new site on the island of O‘ahu. To aid colony establishment, researchers use social attraction equipment, including decoy adults and artificial bird sounds, to attract adults and help the relocated chicks feel connected, or imprinted, to their new home. 

A study in 2013 found that social attraction equipment may aid the imprinting of short-tailed albatross chicks that have been relocated to a new colony. However, we don’t know whether black-footed albatross chicks will respond the same way. 

For the purposes of my study, the social attraction equipment includes decoys painted as adult black-footed albatrosses and playback speakers which project adult black-footed albatross calls. This research, funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and hosted in the Wildlife Ecology Lab under Dr. Melissa Price, aims to determine the effectiveness of visual and vocal social attraction equipment on black-footed albatross in a newly formed colony at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on O‘ahu (JCNWR). The objectives of this work are to: quantify the amount of time chicks spend near social attraction equipment; compare the number of detected chicks among different combinations of social attraction equipment; and  compare the amount of time chicks spend near social attraction equipment and among different combinations of equipment.

Black-footed albatross recovered from endangered status to vulnerable status in 2012 and are currently classified as near threatened under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2017 criteria. Although their populations have recovered somewhat, they still face potential threats, including mortality from plastic ingestion and habitat loss due to invasion of non-native vegetation and sea level rise. 

Re-establishing breeding colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands is vital for reducing the risk of black-footed albatross extinction posed by sea level rise and human impacts such as plastic ingestion and entanglement. 

Pacific Rim Conservation currently leads the seabird translocation initiative under their “No Net Loss” mission to establish new breeding colonies for seabirds within a predator-proof fence. Since 2017, PRC has moved black-footed albatross chicks from their current habitat to a new habitat at JCNWR on O‘ahu where they are hand-reared by staff until they develop wing feathers large enough for flight. 

Visual and vocal social attraction equipment has been used to attract adult black-footed albatross to the new colony site, but information is lacking on the potential to use these as an aid for the chicks to imprint on the new colony. Dr. Lindsay Young, who earned her doctorate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and is co-founder and executive director of Pacific Rim Conservation, says, “Daniela’s research is important for biologists to determine the (effectiveness) of the techniques they are using, and we are hopeful that with the data she gathers, we will be able to improve our conservation outcomes for this species.” 

This study will provide a first look at the use of visual and vocal social attraction equipment for newly translocated black-footed albatross chicks with the hope to guide future decisions regarding the type, quantity and placement of social attraction equipment in black-footed albatross translocation projects.