A project more than 30 years in the making took place on Kauai’s north shore on Monday when 10 downy endangered Hawaiian petrel chicks were flown by helicopter from their nesting area to a new colony protected by a predator-proof fence at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

The translocation, which involved three separate teams and more than a dozen people, took place simultaneously in Kauai’s rugged mountain interior and along the coast. In the early morning, two teams were dropped by helicopter onto mountain peaks located in the Hono O Na Pali Natural Area Reserve within the Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve, state lands managed by the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife. There, the teams headed for 10 nest burrows that had been monitored throughout the breeding season.

Each burrow contained a large, healthy chick. The chicks were carefully removed by hand, placed into pet carriers, and hiked up to the tops of peaks where the helicopters picked them up. Like any precious cargo, the chicks’ holding boxes were seat-belted into the helicopter to ensure their safety.

The chicks were flown to Princeville Airport where the animal care team on the ground assessed their health. From there, they were driven to their new home within the recently completed predator-proof fence in the Nihoku area of the Refuge.

Endangered Hawaiian petrels, or ʻUaʻu, are one of two seabird species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and are found nowhere else on Earth. They have declined dramatically due to a number of threats, including predation by introduced mammals (such as cats, rats, and pigs) and collisions with man-made structures during their nocturnal flights from breeding colonies in the mountains to the ocean, where they search for food.

Hawaiian petrel chicks imprint on their birth colony the first time they emerge from their burrows and see the night sky, and they will return to breed at the same colony as adults. Since chicks were removed from their natural burrows before this critical imprinting stage, they will emerge from their nest boxes and imprint on the Nihoku area, returning to the site as adults.

In the meantime, human caretakers will hand-feed the young birds a slurry of fish and squid, and will carefully monitor their growth until the birds leave their new nest burrows and fly out to sea. The petrels will remain at sea for the next three to five years until they return to the same site as adults.

The new colony will be the only fully protected colony of federally listed seabirds anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands, and represents a huge achievement towards recovering this species. Adding translocations of Newell’s Shearwater will be an important next step in the project.

“We have seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of Newell’s Shearwaters on Kauaʻi in recent years, with an estimated 75 percent drop in the last 15 years,” said Dr. André Raine of Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project. “The establishment of new colonies of that species using predator-proof enclosures at Nihoku, and possibly other locations in the future, is an important management tool to help reverse this decline.”