Why are these wild albatross chicks sitting in flower pots?

March 10, 2016, 10:10 a.m.
Albatross chicks use flower pots as nest cups.
Photo: David Boyle/Chatham Island Taiko Trust

It may seem a strange scene, with 50 fluffy albatross sitting inside flower pots and decoy adults scattered around them. It's looks like something out of a sci-fi book, but there's a good reason for all of this.

These little albatross chicks are Chatham albatross, also called Chatham Islands mollymawk. The species breeds in only one location in the entire world, an island called The Pyramid in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand. Albatross are famous for coming back to the place they were born to raise their families, and indeed, some albatross individuals may return to the same nest cup where they were born to start looking for a spot to build a nest. The Chatham albatross species is considered vulnerable to extinction because if one catastrophic event happens at their nesting island, the species could be severely impacted for a long time, perhaps even wiped out. After all, everyone knows you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket or one island.

And that brings us back to the chicks in the flower pots. They've been transplanted!

Technically, the word is translocated. Because albatross return to the place they were born to raise their own chicks, and because the species needs to nest on more than one island to protect the future of the species, the Chatham Island Taiko Trust has launched a five-year plan. Each year, the group is taking 50 albatross chicks from the pyramid and translocating them to an area to the southwest.

"We collect them about halfway through their growing period, and then feed them daily until they fledge. We’re basically hoping to reprogramme them to think that here is home, and they’ll come back here to breed,” Mike Bell from the Chatham Island Taiko Trust tells RadioNZ.

As for the flower pots, they serve as make-shift nest cups. The albatross adults build pillars out of mud as their nests, and the chicks happily sit atop the perch while they grow up. The trust wasn't able to duplicate the mud pillars, but flower pots buried partly into the ground and filled with peat make a great substitute.

And the decoy adults ... there's a purpose to them as well. Reports RadioNZ:

The decoy adult albatrosses that have been dotted around the translocation site are so realistic that once chicks are old enough to adventure off their ‘flowerpot castle’, they often snuggle up to, and even beg food, from the decoys. The purpose of the decoys is to make the new clifftop site seem like a busy albatross colony, and a speaker system that plays noisy colony sounds adds to that impression.

This is the third year of the five-year plan. If the folks at Chatham Island Taiko Trust are successful, then in just a couple of years, the albatross chicks raised that first year will hit maturity and begin to return to their nesting grounds to start looking for a mate. And perhaps in another few years, the Chatham albatross will finally have two nesting colonies in the world!

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.