Albatross chick death highlights plastic threat to seabirds


A 10-day-old Northern Royal Albatross chick has died from ingesting soft plastic regurgitated by its parent, once again highlighting the threat that plastic pollution poses to seabird populations worldwide.

New Zealand Department of Conservation's (DOC) Sharyn Broni said the tragic death is the first of its kind at the famous Taiaroa Head colony of this magnificent species, but rangers had feared something like this could happen after other incidents involving plastic rubbish in recent years.

Broni explained: "The parent will have picked up the plastic while foraging at sea and then regurgitated it for the chick, which unfortunately has blocked the digestive system.

"This heartbreaking incident is a reminder it's vital to dispose of plastic rubbish carefully. People can also help by picking up litter they see on beaches, near waterways, or out on the ocean. Every piece you pick up could save a seabird's life."

The 10-day-old Northern Royal Albatross chick that recently perished from ingesting plastic (DOC).


Plastic threat to albatrosses

Broni added that there have been other close calls at the colony in recent years, such as when a 9-cm-long plastic pony toy was found in a chick's nest in May 2021, which had been regurgitated by a parent. Fortunately, the chick didn't swallow it.

Broni said: "DOC staff found plastic in almost all the Northern Royal Albatross chick regurgitations checked last season. The most common plastics seen were bottlecaps, however items like a plastic syringe were also found.

"Plastic pollution is a significant threat facing our seabirds because they can mistake floating plastic for food and eat it. Algae can grow on the plastic making it smell like food and can encourage the birds to eat it. As well as being a risk for chicks, it can also kill adult birds because it sits in the stomach and they can't digest it, causing dehydration or starvation."

Northern Royal Albatross is of the largest seabirds in the world and has a conservation status of Nationally Vulnerable in New Zealand. Other than plastic pollution, threats include the impacts of climate change on their habitat and food sources, as well as fishing bycatch. They only return to land to breed. Reproduction is slow, with one chick produced every two years.

Taiaroa Head is the only mainland colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world. DOC co-manages the albatross colony, which has grown from one breeding pair in 1937 to more than 60 pairs in 2024.


Albatross webcam

Anyone who wants to learn more about the species can tune into the round-the-clock livestream Royal Cam, which follows an albatross couple as they raise a chick from egg to fledging. The livestream is a collaboration between DOC and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Highlights are also regularly posted on X.

This season's Royal Cam chick hatched on 23 January. Its parents, LGL and LGK, previously raised chicks on Royal Cam in 2021 and 2019. The birds' names are based on the colour of the identifying bands on their legs.

Members of the public can follow progress at the Northern Royal Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head via an online webcam.