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First confirmed death of adult Tristan albatross due to house mice


The first adult Tristan albatross known to be killed by invasive non-native house mice (P. Ryan)

The two ‘round-island’ counts that we do as the Overwintering Team on Gough Island are usually one of the highlights of our year. We go out in January and count the adults sitting on their nests (or occasionally pairs of Tristan albatrosses still rekindling their bond after more than a year at sea), and then return 10 months later to count their chicks as they prepare to fledge. The job takes several days and we have to camp across the island – it is a perfect opportunity to really get to know the place we call home for the year (though as you can see from earlier blogs – the weather isn’t always kind to us!).


In between times, we monitor the nests at two sites more closely – Tafelkop and Gonydale. These are closer to our main base in the south east of the island – just a few hours' hike away. It was here, a few weeks ago, when our team first spotted two nests with adults carrying awful wounds. Our hearts sank.


One adult was sitting on her nest, chick still beneath her. The wounds were deep and looked serious – much worse than the one seen on a different adult in 2018 which was suspected at the time (though not proven) to have been caused by mice.

Despite her deep wounds, the female still guards her chick (P. Ryan)

When the team returned to the area next, our worst fears were confirmed – the wound of the adult seen sitting on her chick had proved fatal. Her body was found a little way from the nest. Later the island’s scavenging birds were taking advantage of this windfall.


This adult, the female of the pair, was one of the most experienced breeding Tristan albatrosses in the world, having been ringed as a chick on Gough in 1986. She was the second oldest breeding Tristan albatross known and had raised several chicks in her lifetime.

The female's body was found a little way from the nest (R. Daling)

This is the first time on record that a Critically Endangered Tristan albatross adult has been killed by house mice. As the chicks (at their heaviest) are heavier than the adults, we knew the adult’s size was no protection against the mice. But whilst the chicks can’t fly away, the adults technically can – we had thought that this may be the reason mice seemed to leave them alone.


The death of each breeding Tristan albatross is a serious loss – in terms of the species’ survival it is an even bigger blow than the loss of a chick because they have to survive for around a decade before they can even start breeding.


Mice, like all species, change and adapt to their surroundings – so it has, perhaps, always been a matter of time before the adults would be attacked. In some cases, like on Midway, new information between house mice has been seen to be transferred at speed. We can only hope that this behaviour is not yet widespread on Gough, and that the eradication attempt, now on the cusp of being implemented, is successful.


As for what is left of these two nests… With only one parent now providing food, the chick of the dead adult might take longer to fledge and is likely to be in a weaker state, multiplying the threat from the mice and making it less likely to survive at sea. At our last check at the other nest, there was no sign of the wounded adult and the nest had failed.

The father guards his chick, but faces months of sole-provisioning if the chick is to have any chance of survival (R. Daling)

Kim Stevens is RSPB Senior Field Assistant, Gough Island.


This year the RSPB and its partners will try to eradicate the house mice on Gough and make it a seabird paradise once again. The project was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha government had to abandon these plans and airlift the team home. With the delays the project now has a significant funding deficit.


If you would like to help close this funding gap, you can donate directly to the restoration project at https://www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/donate/appeals/gough-island/


To keep up to date with all the latest news please follow our Gough Island Facebook and Twitter pages, or contact us on email: goughisland@rspb.org.uk


Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (South Africa), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, Conservación de Islas, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research and BirdLife International. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.







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5 Comments


Antje Steinfurth
Antje Steinfurth
Aug 23, 2021

Hi Christopher, we expect that - in large part - the mouse carcasses will be located underground. Moreover, the baiting took place over winter when most birds were away at sea. As a result, we expect the risk to scavenging birds from mouse carcasses to be limited.

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christopher.oyston
Aug 23, 2021
Replying to

Thank you for your reply, i did have every confidence that the mouse carcasse problem would have been taken into consideration with all of your teams planning. I just hadnt read anything about it in your information. I sincerely hope you have had success with your task, i think its a magnificent project and you should all be proud to be part of the team. Good luck, i look forward to reading about the results over the next

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christopher.oyston
Aug 08, 2021

You write that the islands scavenging birds feed on the albatross carcase, what if these birds feed on the bodies of the poisoned mice. Is it hoped the mice will hunker down in their nests to die?

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Antje Steinfurth
Antje Steinfurth
May 07, 2021

Thank you for your questions.

While it is human instinct to want to provide help and care, in this situation it is simply not as straightforward as one might instinctively think – and could cause more damage than good.

Of course, our field team would like to help each bird they encounter with a mouse wound. However, they are not trained vets. That aside, the distances they would have to travel across the island to attend nests would make it logistically impossible to provide regular care. And as mouse attacks occur on a truly terrible scale – 2 million eggs and chicks lost each year – there is simply no way three people could hope to make any meaningful impact…

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Mauro Antonio Marquez
Mauro Antonio Marquez
Apr 29, 2021

My question is why didn't the team help the wounded bird? Why sit and wait to see if the wounds were fatal? why not just intervene and provided some veterinary care?

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