The Tasmanian shy albatross has embraced the idea of settling down in an artificial, specially constructed nest, according to scientists who are trying to boost the population of the endangered seabird.
A trial of the nests was announced in June to help the breeding success of the endangered species, which biologists believe are vulnerable to the environmental effects of climate change.
By installing high-quality artificial nests, scientists hope more chicks will survive to adulthood, and early signs are that the birds are on board.
Rachael Alderman, who has studied the shy albatross for 15 years, said most of the 120 nests installed on Albatross Island off the north-west Tasmanian coast were being used by the birds.
“Albatross lay a single egg each year and on average, over half the attempts will fail,” she said. “Monitoring data shows that pairs breeding on high-quality nests have higher breeding success [rates] than those on poorer quality nests.
“The albatrosses using the artificial nests are displaying all the usual courting rituals, territorial behaviours and nesting activities that we would expect to be associated with a natural nest. In most cases the pair has added their own mud and other material.”
Shy albatrosses breed only on three remote islands off the coast of Tasmania, with an estimated 15,000 breeding pairs. Because they have elaborate courtship rituals and form long-term monogamous bonds, they usually do not mate until they are up to eight years old.
“Their strategy in life is to live long and put lots of energy into their individual breeding attempts,” Alderman told the Guardian in June. “So if something happens to make that harder to achieve, their populations really do suffer.”
The nests, made of mud brick and aerated concrete, have been specially designed to mimic the properties of natural nests. They weigh between 12kg and 20kg and are 45cm wide and 30cm high.
The project is being funded by the Tasmanian and federal governments, WWF-Australia, the CSIRO and the Tasmanian Albatross Fund.
Birds using the nests have laid their eggs over the past two weeks and are now settling in to incubate them for 70 days before the chicks hatch in mid-December.
Darren Grover of WWF-Australia said the nest installation was timed to maximise acceptance.
“Researchers positioned the artificial nests just as the birds were starting to stake out nest sites and begin construction,” he said. “Although it is still very early days it’s encouraging to see some birds starting to utilise the artificial nests.”
The shy albatross is listed as “vulnerable” by the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The bird’s population dipped to only 600 in the 19th century as they were killed for their feathers. By 2004 it had returned to 25% of its pre-exploitation population.
Current factors believed to endanger the population include rising air temperatures, which may lower chick survival rates, and warming oceans that mean birds must travel further to find food.
During the breeding period, shy albatrosses take turns incubating their single egg. After the chick hatches, both parents spend about five months rearing it before it comes independent.
With a wingspan of 220cm to 256cm, the bird ranges from as far west as Western Australia to the north-east of Stradbroke Island in Queensland.
- This article was corrected on 10 October 2017. The original version said the number of breeding pairs was estimated at 1,500.