Torishima islet in the Izu Island chain has traditionally been a breeding ground for the short-tailed albatross, an endangered species.
Researchers are now working on a project to move them from the islet, which has a history of volcanic eruptions, to the Muko Islands, also known as the Keeta Islands, in the Ogasawara chain some 300 km south, in the hope that the birds will form a new breeding colony there.
The short-tailed albatross used to be common throughout the Pacific but were hunted almost to extinction for their feathers.
They were thought to have become extinct until a breeding colony was found on Torishima, and their numbers are now estimated to have recovered to more than 1,800. Unfortunately, the island is an active volcano that has erupted three times in the last 100 years.
“We have no idea when it will erupt again. We would like to create a new breeding place (for the birds) on a safe island as quickly as possible,” said Tomohiro Deguchi, a researcher at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture.
The institute and the Environment Ministry decided on the Muko Islands as the transfer point because there are records of albatrosses having bred there in the past.
On Torishima, attempts have been made since the 1990s to induce the albatrosses to move to safer places by using decoys that closely resemble the birds. Although there was some success, this method was time-consuming because so much is up to the behavior of the birds. It was therefore decided that for the ongoing project, albatross chicks would be moved by ship to the Muko Island chain.
As a trial for the project, Deguchi and others, in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States, moved 10 Laysan albatross chicks from the Central Pacific island of Midway in March to the Hawaiian island of Kauai about 2,000 km away.
The plan was to artificially rear the chicks, which are close cousins to the short-tailed albatross, on Kauai until they could make their first flight from the nest.
The chicks were fed squid and pond smelts. Three of the chicks died of infectious disease, but the other seven have grown to be almost adult birds, each about 90 cm in length.
“As we had predicted that only about 50 percent would survive, it is good that seven are still alive,” Deguchi said. “I believe we have been able to establish an artificial breeding technology of sorts.”
Albatrosses return to the place where they are born for breeding about three years after leaving the nest. The theory is that if the chicks are moved to another place shortly after they hatch, they will return to that place as adults to breed.
Deguchi and the U.S. researchers will investigate whether the Laysan albatross chicks, which were moved to Kauai one month after they hatched, will return there during the breeding season, and also study the birds to determine the optimal timing for removing chicks from the habitat of their birth.
In 2007, the researchers will move some albatrosses hatched on Torishima to the Muko Islands to raise them artificially there.
The full-fledged moving of the birds may start as early as in 2008.
“The creation of a breeding ground in the Muko Island chain is the final step in protecting the albatross. If all goes smoothly, a new breeding colony can be created in 15 to 20 years,” said Hiroshi Hasegawa, a Toho University professor who has long studied albatrosses.
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