Seabird conservation mostly works, comprehensive new data set shows

Seabird conservation mostly works, comprehensive new data set shows

  • Researchers compiled a data set of seabird restoration projects, including those that used translocation and social attraction, from around the world.
  • Ornithologist Stephen Kress pioneered translocation and social attraction, but these methods have been used more than 850 times in the last 70 years — mostly to great success.
  • Experts say seabirds are one of the most threatened bird groups in the world, and translocation and social attraction can help protect them against threats like invasive species and the impacts of climate change.

Fifty years ago, ornithologist Stephen Kress had a bold vision for Eastern Egg Rock, an island off the coast of Maine. He wanted to restore the island’s former colony of Atlantic puffins that hunters had wiped out in the 1880s.

This kind of seabird restoration had never been done before, but Kress was determined to try. In 1973, he began transporting Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) chicks, or pufflings, from Canada onto the island. However, during the initial four years of the project, he had trouble getting the puffins to return to the island to breed. So Kress tried something else.

“I saw an article in National Geographic magazine about Icelandic people hunting puffins, using dead puffins as decoys to attract them,” Kress told Mongabay. “They were aware that puffins would fly in close to look at other puffins, and they were propping up dead birds to mimic an existing colony.”

Atlantic Puffins gape at reflections on a mirror box in Maine. Image by Derrick Z. Jackson

Kress installed his own decoys on Eastern Egg Rock, but instead of dead puffins, he used wooden sculptures shaped and painted to look exactly like the bright-billed seabirds.

“To my amazement, almost to the day that we put up these decoys, we had our first landing,” said Kress, who was the first to use these methods to move seabirds. “So my hunch that what was missing was a social element, or at least that the birds would come to decoys, proved itself. And among those first landed birds, they had bands on them, so they were my translocated birds. That was the first big milestone for this project.”

Now Eastern Egg Rock has a thriving population of more than 750 breeding pairs of puffins — and Kress’s idea of moving seabirds to new sites has been repeated hundreds of times worldwide.

In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, co-authored by Kress, a team of researchers documented 851 seabird restoration events that took place over the last 70 years (although most took place during the previous 10 years). These projects spanned 551 locations and targeted 138 seabird species.

Forty-nine of these events used translocation, the process of moving seabirds from one place to another, while 802 used social attraction, which is the use of decoys, mirrors, bird sound recordings and other devices to lure birds to a new place. Fifty-two of these projects used translocation and social attraction in combination.

A black-footed albatross
A black-footed albatross translocated to James Campbell NWR in Hawaii. Image by Leilani Fowlk/Pacific Rim Conservation.
Laysan albatross with decoys
Laysan albatross with decoys at James Campbell NWR in Hawaii. Image by Eric VanderWerf/Pacific Rim Conservation.

“We were all very surprised by how many efforts there were,” study lead author Dena Spatz, a senior conservation scientist at Pacific Rim Conservation, told Mongabay. “We kept uncovering more and more and more experts, and we had no idea that people were using these tools in so many places for so many different seabird species.”

The average duration of each project was five years, and most projects were successfully completed. However, the result of each project depended largely on the species and circumstances, the authors noted. Some of the world’s most threatened birds, including shearwaters, petrels and puffins, responded the most positively to restoration attempts, particularly social attraction.

The study authors also launched the Seabird Restoration Database, a website that provides information about every known seabird restoration project, noting successes and failures.

About 30% of seabirds are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most vulnerable bird groups in the world. Threats to seabirds include invasive species, fisheries bycatch, pollution, habitat destruction, and the impacts of climate change.

Conservation practitioners may translocate or socially attract seabirds to alternative sites to help them avoid invasive species that may prey on their eggs or the birds themselves. They may also move seabirds when species have lost their habitats. Or when their nesting sites are threatened by rising sea levels and other climate change impacts.

The Seabird Restoration Database map.
The Seabird Restoration Database map.
A social attraction system at James Campbell NWR in Hawaii with blck-footed albatross decoys
A social attraction system at James Campbell NWR in Hawaii with blck-footed albatross decoys. Image by Dena Spatz/Pacific Rim Conservation.

While seabird restoration projects have been largely successful, this work can be extremely challenging. For instance, study co-author Graham Taylor, a New Zealand Department of Conservation scientist, said early efforts to translocate seabird species in New Zealand often failed due to diet inadequacies.

“The food the parents feed them is really nutritionally balanced — it’s got all the right fats and carbohydrates and vitamins and oils that they need for their growth, and if you don’t get it right, things start to go wrong,” Taylor told Mongabay.

“It took us a fair few projects to get it right, and eventually we got onto a canned sardine diet,” he added. “We just blended it with a little bit of oil and water and some vitamin supplements and fed it to seabirds in captivity [which started] to work really well.”

Seabird restoration projects also require a long-term commitment to maintaining a restored site.

“In some cases, I can’t tell people you’re going to ever be done,” Kress said. “So just think about that before you start — if you encourage these birds to breed on a spot, who’s going to look after them in the future?”

But while seabird restoration projects may require intensive work during their initial periods, Kress said it can become more manageable over the long term because the “birds are working with you.”

“They have a strong desire to thrive, and they are resilient,” Kress said. “And so if they are breeding successfully on one island, they’re going to return to that spot the following year, almost certainly, because they’re building up a faithfulness to that spot. So they’re working with you as the conservationists, but they still may need some help.”

Northern gannets among decoys
Northern gannets among decoys on Mana Island in New Zealand. Image by Colin Miskelly/Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Jose Luis Herrera-Giraldo, a scientist at the NGO Island Conservation, who was not involved in this study, said translocation and social attraction efforts can help threatened seabirds survive and thrive, and that the PNAS study and database provide critical information that could inform future efforts.

“Climate change, habitat destruction, and failing ocean health are here now, so it is critical we take action to protect and increase threatened seabird populations as fast as we can, making them more resilient,” Herrera-Giraldo told Mongabay in an emailed statement.

“Seabirds are essential connector species in island-ocean ecosystems, bringing nutrients from the sea to the land, which in turn nourishes the marine environment creating more fish biomass,” Herrera-Giraldo added. “Island communities are dependent on these natural resources for their livelihoods, sustainability, and health. The loss of seabirds from an island can cause the entire island-ocean ecosystem to collapse.”

Spatz said she believes collaboration within the conservation community is the key to success in seabird restoration work.

“Putting together a data set like this is not possible unless the conservation community is willing to share what they’ve done to be open about failures, and so that we can learn from them,” Spatz said. “So that was a really important piece — gaining trust from the community to gather this kind of information. And then, in general, getting projects off the ground is dependent on communities working together.”

Banner image: An Atlantic puffin inspecting a decoy in Maine. Image by Derrick Z. Jackson.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

For threatened seabirds of NE Atlantic, climate change piles on the pressure


Spatz, D. R., Young, L. C., Holmes, N. D., Jones, H. P., VanderWerf, E. A., Lyons, D. E., … Taylor, G. A. (2023). Tracking the global application of conservation translocation and social attraction to reverse seabird declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(16). doi:10.1073/pnas.2214574120


This story first appeared on Mongabay

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