One step forward after three steps back – slow progress with restoring populations of New Zealand seabirds

One step forward after three steps back – slow progress with restoring populations of New Zealand seabirds

Fairy prion chick being banded on Mana Island, January 2012. Photo: Kate McAlpine & Colin Miskelly

2011 was a grim year for New Zealand seabirds. They suffered the triple-whammy of nuclear-fallout from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant affecting the North Pacific non-breeding grounds of at least four species, a severe winter storm that killed up to half a million prions, then the Rena oil spill believed to have killed several thousand birds. Compared to the scale of these disasters, attempts to restore seabird populations appear almost futile.

Storm-wrecked prions at Paekakariki, Wellington west coast, July 2011. Photo: Colin Miskelly
Diving petrels and fluttering shearwaters killed by the Rena oil spill, Bay of Plenty, October 2011. Photo: Colin Miskelly

For the past two decades, New Zealand conservationists have been developing techniques for restoring burrow-nesting petrels (including shearwaters and prions) to sites safe from predators. This required overcoming the birds’ strong homing instincts by translocating then hand-feeding young chicks until they completed their feather development and flew out to sea. This method has now been tried on more than ten species of petrels, but progress is glacially slow. All petrel species lay only a single egg per year, and many do not start breeding (or even return to land) until they are four or more years old.

Translocated fluttering shearwater chick being fed a sardine smoothy, Mana Island, January 2007. Photo: David Cornick

Mana Island, off the Wellington west coast, has been the single site where the greatest effort has been made to restore burrow-nesting petrels. Between 1997 and 2008, over 700 chicks of three species were translocated to the island, and cared for by teams of contractors and volunteers organised by the Department of Conservation and the Friends of Mana Island (a community conservation group). The younger birds are still returning, but over 60 have been recorded back so far.

All three species are now nesting on the island, with increasing numbers of chicks being recorded each year. During the 2011/12 breeding season, 19 chicks are known to have survived to fledging – 8 common diving petrels, 7 fluttering shearwaters and 4 fairy prions. Other chicks are likely to have been produced in undetected or unmonitored burrows (some of the latter are located at inaccessible cliff sites).

In addition to the translocated chicks that returned as adults, a few unmarked birds of each species have been attracted by loudspeakers broadcasting petrel calls each night, and perhaps also by the birds that have returned to the island.

Colin Miskelly holding a fluttering shearwater chick, Mana Island, January 2012. Photo: Kate McAlpine & Colin Miskelly

Restoring seabirds takes time and requires a lot of effort. Understanding how to proceed, at what cost, and the likely outcomes, is essential as we consider how to offset the impacts of disasters caused directly or indirectly by humans.


  1. Yes it is terrible I agree. Also I am sickened by the millions of birds that are killed by wind turbines every year. Apparently, an Oregon wind farm developer has applied for a licence to kill Golden Eagles so that he can legally run his wind operation and not be concerned about being taken to court over killing this endangered species.

  2. Aw – what a little cutie! Thanks for helping the birds!

  3. It’s heart-wrenching to consider all the devastation that man-wrought disasters have on wildlife.
    Anyone on the planet who cares about our wildlife will daily thank the gods for people who’s life work is to repair as best as possible, the damage the human species wreaks.

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