Nica Richards
Deputy online news editor
5 minute read
29 Jan 2021
4:19 pm

PICS: Rescued Cape cormorant chicks faring well after being abandoned by their parents

Nica Richards

The chicks' parents likely abandoned them due to lack of food.

Some of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks rescued off Robben Island after being abandoned by their parents. It is suspected the abandonment was due to lack of food. Picture: SANCCOB

An epic rescue operation to save close to 1700 Cape cormorant chick conducted earlier in January has been a raging success. 

The operation was undertaken by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), the Robben Island Museum (RIM), the Two Oceans Aquarium and the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) on 12 and 13 January, after the chicks were abandoned by their parents. 

A Cape cormorant chick sticks its beak out of a box at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds after being rescued with about 1700 others from Robben Island, in Cape Town. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

A volunteer feeds a piece of sardine to one of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks being taken care of, after being rescued from Robben Island, at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Cape cormorant chicks being rescued. Picture: SANCCOB

As the chicks were too young to fend for themselves, their future involved certain death, until the rescue operation, the second-biggest in the Western Cape, commenced. Some chicks did perish, but the majority of the young birds were saved.

Volunteers feed Cape cormorant chicks. Picture: SANCCOB

A volunteer gets ready to feed one of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks being taken care of, after being rescued from Robben Island. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

SANCCOB researchers suspect lack of food to be the main reason for the mass abandonment. 

“Cape cormorants feed mainly on anchovy, and to a smaller extent, on sardines, and these small pelagic fish species are at very low levels at the moment,” said SANCCOB research manager Dr Katta Ludynia. 

Volunteers prepare a tasty sardine snack for rescued Cape cormorant chicks. Picture: SANCCOB

Ludynia said a number of fish species were in short supply at the moment, which results in “dramatic population declines”. 

A volunteer cleans out an adjoining enclosure next to some of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks being taken care of, after being rescued from Robben Island. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Some of these include the African penguin, the Cape gannet and the Cape cormorant, all of which are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

“Lack of sufficient food is the primary factor for the most recent declines observed,” Ludynia said. 

Some of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks rescued off Robben Island after being abandoned by their parents. It is suspected the abandonment was due to lack of food. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

At first, it was thought that the adult Cape cormorants may have floated out to sea to cool down. 

This was disputed by Ludynia, who explained that these birds were summer breeders, and were used to hot weather. 

She said a recent study on cormorant species did not find abandonment at high temperatures to be a factor, especially not what was witnessed recently. 

Cape cormorant chicks eat their lunch of sardines at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

During the rescue operation, the NSRI’s Table Bay station dispatched a rescue party and sea raft. They then boxed and transported the chicks to the mainland.

NSRI to the rescue. Picture: SANCCOB

As soon as the chicks arrived at SANCCOB’s seabird hospital, they were weighed and hydrated quickly, to reduce their stress, and placed in designated pens according to their weight. 

Veterinarians then assessed each chick. The chicks weighed between 150g and 600g. 

Some chicks weighed just 150g. Picture: SANCCOB

The high survival rate of the rescued chicks is due to speedy, coordinated action and the careful watchful eyes of RIM and SANCCOB’s penguin and seabird rangers.

The adults were gone for just hours before the alarm was raised that the chicks were in peril. 

But the incident still bothers experts who noted the unusual activity of the adult Cape cormorants. 

RIM head of heritage and research Thabo Seshoka said it was “an anomaly that both RIM and SANCCOB are studying”.

Hundreds of boxes of Cape cormorant chicks. Picture: SANCCOB

He explained that 186 bird species made use of Robben Island to breed, which was why it was a Marine Protected Area. The island was more than a World Heritage site. The constant breeding activity “underpins the need for responsible tourism on the island”, Seshoka added. 

Cape cormorant chicks are numbered. Picture: SANCCOB

Volunteers carry boxes with some of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks being taken care of, after being rescued from Robben Island, at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

“Conservation is central to the Robben Island Museum’s mandate as a museum. Although the island was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1999 under the category of cultural landscapes, fauna and flora form part of our valuable heritage assets and must be prudently conserved and sustained at all times. 

“We appreciate our collaboration with SANCCOB as it bolsters our efforts in managing the island as an integrated resource,” Seshoka said. 

Some of the 1700 Cape cormorant chicks being taken care of, after being rescued from Robben Island, at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

If you would like to donate funds to help SANCCOB look after the surviving chicks, click here.

Items urgently needed to help Cape cormorant chicks. Image: SANCCOB

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