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A grey-headed albatross chick sat in an automated weighing nest
Image courtesy of Vicki Foster

June 2022

Object Title: Artificial Albatross Nest
Object Number: 2022.39

This month we look at an unusual object – an artificial nest used by breeding albatross on Bird Island.

The fibreglass artificial nest

Lying off the north-west tip of South Georgia is Bird Island, one of the most important sea-bird sites in the world, home to several species of albatross. Monitoring and collecting data on breeding albatross and chick development is vital work to protect these wonderful animals. The British Antarctic Survey carry out monitoring across South Gregoria to learn more about the animal, its environment and behaviour. On Bird Island Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross breeding colonies have been studied since 1975. Of all albatross species 21 out of 22 are classified as globally threatened, and 2 are classed as Critically Endangered.

As well as being the largest of all seabirds, with wingspans up to 3.5m, albatross are also the longest living. Some surviving for more that 60 years. They form monogamous bonds and usually do not mate until around 8-10 years old. They always return to the island of their birth to breed. Although most breed annually, 9 of the species lay only a single egg each year and many chicks will not make it to adulthood. The bird will share incubation with its mate for around 70 days before the egg hatches and ten the chick will spend the best part of a year in the nest, while the parents fly great distances in search of food.

Historic glass lantern slide of a ‘young white molly’

Alongside population assessments and monitoring, food and feeding strategies of these two Bird Island mollymawks have been studied. Periodic weighing of chicks is labour-intensive and repeated handling can cause high levels of disturbance and stress to chicks. To solve this problem, automatic fibreglass nests were developed in 1984. Establishing meal size and feeding frequency can help to understand a chick’s progress and growth but also the activity and energy expended by both chick and parent.

View of underneath the fake nest

In 2017 science took a step further and discovered that using artificial nests can also help in a big part of breeding. On Albatross Island, off the north-west coast of Tasmania, 120 fake mud-brick nests are helping the Tasmanian shy albatross population. The nests, have been designed to mimic the properties of natural nests. They weigh between 12-20kg and can be up to 45cm wide and 30cm high. By bringing in high quality nests the chicks have a higher rate of survival than those on poorer quality natural nests.