Aid for a Struggling Galápagos Seabird — on Private Lands, in Artificial Burrows
(March 8, 2022) The Critically Endangered Galapagos Petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia) has begun using artificial burrows placed on farm edges on the Galapagos Islands. This football-sized seabird is in dramatic decline due to predation by introduced invasive mammals, expansion of agriculture, and the blockage of burrows by dense growth of invasive exotic plants.
To help the Galapagos Petrel safely raise chicks and recover its numbers, American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is working with partners to embed in-ground nest boxes at the edges of agricultural fields. The project is a collaborative effort between ABC and Conservation International, local farmers, and local consultants Carolina Proaño, Jonathan Guillén, and Leo Zurita Arthos from Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
“When we found natural burrows, they were often in areas that were subject to trampling by livestock, or disturbance by farming activities,” says David Wiedenfeld, ABC's Senior Conservation Scientist. “With the help of the farmers, we were able to identify areas that would have better outcomes and install artificial nest boxes.”
Galapagos Petrels spend much of their lives on the Pacific Ocean, foraging for squid, octopuses, and fishes, but they breed exclusively on the Galapagos Islands. There, they dig burrows — sometimes taking multiple seasons to perfect a spot. Inside a burrow, each breeding female lays a single egg per year.
Unfortunately, safe and intact burrows are dwindling. Invasive predators brought by humans — including cats and rats — invade to prey on chicks, introduced plants like blackberry block entrances, and grazing livestock cause cave-ins. As a result, only about one-fifth of Galapagos Petrel breeding attempts succeed. The species' population has dropped to fewer than 15,000 individuals.
Determined to test artificial burrows as a way to provide safe petrel-nesting places, ABC and its partners placed six nest boxes, which look like partially buried, overturned flower pots, on private land in June 2021. The team selected sites in collaboration with partnering local farmers who own land where Galapagos Petrels have been known to nest. On the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal, local consultants placed the shelters on the edges of agricultural fields, where they would be safe from trampling. Then, they monitored them with camera traps.
Within a month, prospective petrel parents were checking out the new real estate. Two pairs began nesting; in the end, one pair successfully raised a fluffy gray chick, which fledged in November 2021 on Santa Cruz.
The results and cooperation that came out of this pilot project are encouraging. “When given the opportunity, many seabirds will re-occupy the areas humans have chased them out of — we just have to make it safe for them,” says Brad Keitt, Director of Oceans and Islands for ABC. “Like many species in the Galapagos, this petrel is found nowhere else in the world. Farmers know how special these islands are, and generously gave petrels the space they need to thrive.”
ABC and collaborators hope to build on this success by placing more artificial burrows on private farmlands in the coming years.
American Bird Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).