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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 8, 2005

Kaua'i albatross eggs adopted, not crushed

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

KILAUEA, Kaua'i — Three federal agencies have dropped a controversial proposal to break albatross eggs at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, and instead delivered them to new nests at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

A Laysan albatross cares for an adopted chick from the missile range that was placed in its nest at the Kilauea Point refuge.

Daniel J. Calderon • U.S. Navy

U.S. wildlife service biologist Brenda Zaun slips a chick from the missile range into the nest of a welcoming bird whose own egg was infertile.

Judson Ventar • U.S. Department of Agriculture

"We found foster parents for 27 eggs and chicks," said Brenda Zaun, a wildlife biologist with the Kaua'i National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

One day-old chick died during heavy rain, but the remaining 26 were accepted by adult albatross pairs as replacement young, and the chicks are healthy and growing, she said. They are now about 2 months old, and it will be another two months before they take flight.

The Navy, which operates the missile range, has been frustrated by a small but persistent colony of Laysan albatrosses that returns each year to the west Kaua'i facility. The problem is that the large birds, which have a 6- to 7-foot wingspan, glide low over the range runways and can collide with aircraft, threatening both the albatrosses and aircraft crews.

For years, the Navy relocated the adult birds, and while some have accepted new nesting sites on the north side of the island, many display strong fidelity to their original nesting sites and return year after year. Most of the time, adult relocations take place before nests and eggs appear. When adults did return and nest, the eggs were donated to University of Hawai'i researchers, but in recent years there has been no demand there for them.

Because of a funding problem, the adults weren't moved in time this year, and the range was home to more than two dozen nests with eggs. The initial plan was to break the eggs before they could hatch.

"That didn't go over very well with anybody," Zaun said.

The proposal raised the hackles of some missile range employees as well as the state's conservation and environmental communities. Zaun credits missile range executive officer Lt. Cmdr. Jeanene Torrance with coming up with other options. As possible solutions developed, they got a favorable response from Navy brass.

"We went to Capt. Jeff Connelly, commanding officer of PMRF, and he was willing to give the new program a chance," said John R. Burger, the missile range's environmental coordinator. Navy officials at Pearl Harbor approved funding for the project.

"Everybody really pulled together," Burger said.

Albatrosses, particularly young pairs, have a high rate of infertile eggs. In a series of meetings involving the Navy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, it became clear an opportunity was at hand: There were extra eggs at the missile range, and there were empty nests at Kilauea.

"It kind of evolved over time. At first, I said we could take a few of them. We ended up taking all of them and we could have handled a few more," Zaun said.

The plan was to take missile-range eggs that were just hatching or chicks that were just a few hours old, and place them in the nests of Kilauea adult pairs whose eggs had died or were found to be infertile.

Zaun would quietly slip out infertile eggs and slip in a hatching egg or very young chick. Adoption of a new egg or chick is not unusual for albatrosses as long as there isn't much delay between the loss of an egg or chick and its replacement.

"They are just very accepting. If the timing is right, 100 percent is normal. They'll feed that chick until that chick fledges," Zaun said.

The adult birds at the missile range that lost their eggs also were transferred to Kilauea.

The birds eat fish, squid, fish eggs and other things snatched from the sea's surface. Parents take turns feeding the young. Laysan albatrosses, also known as gooney birds, have a global population of about 2.5 million. They pair for life and live 40 to 50 years.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.