First class treatment for endangered Hawaiian petrels

Nearly a dozen endangered Hawaiian petrel chicks got the ride of their lives this week.

As part of a project that was three decades in the making, the 10 fluffy, grey and white chicks were flown by helicopter from their nesting area on Kauaʻi’s north shore to a new colony featuring a predator-proof fence at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Teams took to Kauaʻi’s rugged mountain interior in search of burrows containing healthy petrel chicks. The chicks were carefully removed by hand, placed into pet carriers, and transported up to the tops of peaks where the helicopters picked them up. The carriers were belted in to ensure they didn’t get injured on the flight.

“This translocation will establish a new, predator-free colony of the endangered Hawaiian Petrel to help prevent the extirpation of the species from Kauaʻi,” said Michael Mitchell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Kauaʻi National Wildlife Refuge Complex Project Leader.

This will be the only fully protected colony of federally listed seabirds anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands.

“Petrels, like many other native Hawaiian species, are facing tremendous challenges with shrinking habitat and the onslaught of invasive species,” Mitchell said, in a statement. “Translocating the birds to Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge ensures that this colony of birds will be protected for our children and our children’s children.”

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The chicks were then flown to Princeville Airport, where they were examined before being driven to their new home.

Endangered Hawaiian Petrels, or ʻUaʻu, are one of two seabird species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and are found nowhere else on Earth. Their numbers have fallen sharply due to numerous threats, including becoming a favorite meal of cats, rats, pigs and other animals.

“We have seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of Newell’s Shearwaters on Kauaʻi in recent years, with an estimated 75 percent drop in the last 15 years,” André Raine of Kaua‘i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, said. “The establishment of new colonies of that species using predator-proof enclosures at Nihoku, and possibly other locations in the future, is an important management tool to help reverse this decline.”

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The new, 7.8 acre enclosure is surrounded by a fine mesh stainless steel fence 6.5 feet high that should keep out most predators.The area inside the enclosure has recently been partially restored with native vegetation, and seabird-friendly nest boxes, specifically designed to mimic natural burrows.

“Predator-proof fencing and translocations of this type are necessary conservation strategies in Hawai'i to deal with widespread non-native predator populations that cannot be readily eradicated,” George Wallace, the vice president of American Bird Conservancy, said in a statement. "For the Hawaiian Petrel, which is threatened by non-native predators in their montane nesting areas, creation of a colony protected from predators will be a major step forward in stabilizing and recovering its Kauaʻi population.”

The relocation effort comes several months after a PLOS ONE study found that seabirds overall had seen their numbers drop 70 percent since the 1950s. The decline was blamed on overfishing, birds getting entangled in fishing gear and predators like rats and cats eating their eggs.

And while this conservation plan may be unusual, it isn't the first to go to extremes to save the seabirds. Australia, New Zealand and other governments have spent tens of millions of dollars to rid rats and cats from islands - often by air-dropping toxic bait - that are home to native seabirds.

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In the case of the Hawaiian petrels, the chicks will return as adults to breed at the same colony where they were born. Since the chicks were removed from their natural burrows before this critical imprinting stage, they will emerge from their nest boxes and imprint on the Nihoku area, returning to the site as adults.

Until they leave their new homes and fly out to sea, human caretakers will hand-feed the young birds a slurry of fish and squid, and monitor their growth. The petrels will remain at sea for the next three to five years.