Saving Albatross Chicks From Tsunamis and Rising Seas

On a windswept bluff on Hawaii’s island of Oahu, conservationists and the U.S. Navy are teaming up to protect albatrosses from an uncertain future. 

Since 2014, the partnership has aimed to establish a new, higher colony of Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) in James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. The long-lived seabirds prefer to nest in low-lying areas near the ocean, making them particularly vulnerable to rising seas and high waves—both projected to increase as the world warms

“There are more than a million [Laysan albatrosses] worldwide, but about 98 percent of them nest in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, most of which have a maximum elevation of two to three meters [about seven to 10 feet],” says Eric VanderWerf of the nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation, which is overseeing the relocation. (Explore an interactive of flying albatrosses.) 

“The islands that most of the birds nest on may not be here that much longer,” he adds. 

A Messy Move

The albatross eggs come from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, where albatrosses keep trying to establish a colony near one of the bases’ runways. 

Conservationists remove eggs from the naval base and place them with “foster” albatross parents until they hatch, at which point the young birds are moved to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, where they are hand-reared for five months. (See photos of albatross chicks with bad hair days.) 

The job might look cute, says Pacific Rim Conservation executive director Lindsay Young, but it’s hardly a glamorous task. 

The young albatrosses become more agitated, not less, as they spend more time with humans, and feeding them requires the preparation of what Young calls a “smoothie” of fish, squid, and fish oil.  

“The birds don’t enjoy it—and the majority of the time, we’re actually cleaning dishes.” 

Field of Dreams

The hope is that the young birds will think of James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge as their home and birthplace.  

That way, when the birds return as adults, they will lay their eggs on higher ground—protecting the colony from climate change’s future effects while also safely moving it away from an active runway. (See more of National Geographic's amazing albatross pictures.)  

If the relocation sticks, it could pay dividends for decades, since albatrosses are legendarily long-lived: Sixty-four-year-old Wisdom, the oldest known albatross, is still breeding and raising healthy chicks

“Doing this kind of preventative [work] is like Field of Dreams—'build it and they will come,’” says Young.  

“It feels nice to do something to put species in a good place before it gets into a bad place." 

Follow Michael Greshko on Twitter.

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