Zaun placing chick with foster parent/ USFWS

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Collaborative Conservation!

Blog Author: 
Juliette Fernandez

What do you do when albatrosses and planes are flying in the same airspace at a naval range? You may be saying, “Great Scott! Exercise population control!” Well…what if I told you that Laysan Albatrosses have been compromised on the island of Kauai since the early 1900’s due to human and animal predation…but agency collaboration might be the answer to helping them nest successfully AND not collide with planes? “Holy Kryptonite! Collaborative Conservation!”


In Search of a Superhero

Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1985 to “protect and enhance migratory seabird and Hawaiian goose populations and their habitats.” However, the nearby Navy Pacific Missile Range, reasonably, had a very different mission. The potential of Laysan albatross collisions with their aircraft were a critical issue so the Navy contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct albatross abatement through egg removal and destruction. In 2005, the program funding was cut and eggs were beginning to hatch! 


Putting on the Collaborative Conservation Cape

Word got out to the public that the Navy was going to have to kill chicks and ready-to-hatch eggs to prevent them from becoming additional flight hazards. The public outcry was poignant and the Navy’s proposed method of reduction was not going to be easily accepted. Brenda Zaun, the Kauai NWR Complex biologist joined the discussion and offered an alternative. “It is crucial to know the species you’re working with,” said Zaun. “We can’t change albatross behavior – we can’t make them nest somewhere else, so we have to work with it and change our tactics to achieve the outcome we want.” Despite very different agency missions, all parties agreed to work together and move the eggs to the refuge to be fostered by nesting adults. “I piped up and said I could take some of the eggs because we always had some pairs that laid infertile eggs. The next day the USDA showed up at my office with 4 newly hatched chicks wrapped in a towel and 4 ready-to-hatch eggs!”


Up, Up and Away

And so the program began. Zaun candled the eggs at the naval base to make sure they were viable. If viable, they were taken back to Kilauea NWR and swapped for infertile eggs found with nesting adults. To everyone’s elation, all eggs were accepted by the new foster parents, increasing hatching success by 13%. “I was ecstatic,” said Zaun. “The Navy had been disposing of the eggs for almost 2 decades and this was an opportunity to save some eggs and increase Kauai’s albatross population (on the north shore).” In year two of the program, 78% of the chicks successfully fledged. By year three, numbers had reached 93%.


Put the tights aside and have a Discussion

Every agency has different uniforms, different missions and priorities. Divergent missions are inevitable, and for good reason, so all bases are covered! The solution is finding the pocket that overlaps. “No one could deny that this was a win-win situation for the albatrosses and the Navy’s public relations,” said Zaun. “They were very proud of the good press they ended up with, since it started out so badly.  We worked together well.  Over the years as we learned more, I tweaked the protocol to increase hatch success, and for the most part, everyone was always receptive and amenable to changes.” For the Laysan Albatrosses born of this effort there is no question the program was a success. It took out-of-the-box thinking, the fostering of partnerships, a lot of education and a couple of red collaboration capes.