Lights out for the seabirds

KOKEE — Artificial lights are mesmerizing for many of Kauai’s endangered seabirds. Starting Thursday, experts are asking people to keep outside lighting to a minimum for their safety for the next few months.

That’s because it’s fledging season, the time of year when the seabird chicks leave their burrows and fly out to sea, where they’ll stay for the next three to five years.

“When the birds come out on their first flight, they’ll get distracted by lights,” said Yuki Reiss, with the Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Program.

That distraction results in the birds falling from the sky, where they are found around the island in all sorts of places, like parking lots, for instance.

“Once they’re down, they need a bit of a runway to lift up again and often times they don’t have the ability to get up again,” Reiss said. “Often a dog or a cat (will get them), or they’ll get hit by cars, or they just scuttle away into the bushes and starve because they can’t get out.”

If all goes according to plan, the little fledgling leaves the burrow when it’s hungry enough, and is fishing in the ocean by the end of the night.

Those that fall out usually do so within a couple of hours after sunset, Reiss said

“If they do survive, they’re hiding away somewhere (during the day) and by the time they come out again, it’s 24 hours of not eating,” Reiss said.

Newell’s shearwaters are particularly susceptible to light attraction and on average, there are 150 Newell’s shearwaters that fall out every season.

Seabird hotels have been set up at all of the fire departments on the island in anticipation for the downed fledglings, and people who find downed seabirds are encouraged to drop them off at the hotels.

“They have a little shearwater hotel with pukas in it. Put the bird in there and write down the location, and the time is really useful, and the ‘Save our Shearwaters Technicians drive’ around and pick up the birds,” Reiss said.

Reiss recommends carrying a box and an old towel in the car during the season, which runs from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15.

“You should use the towel or an old shirt to cover their heads, that’ll calm them down and you can take them somewhere,” Reiss said. “And then it’s great to have a rehabilitation center on the island to take the birds in.”

Two main theories exist as to why the birds are affected by the lights. The first is that because they nocturnally feed on bioluminescent squid. The lights are attractive to them. The other theory is that the birds use the moon to navigate to the sea.

“There’s a lot less birds that come down during a full moon,” Reiss said.

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