The breeding biology of the gadfly petrels Pterodroma spp. of the Pitcairn Islands: characteristics, population sizes and controls



This paper reports the breeding biology and nesting seasons of the gadfly petrels which nest on the four islands of the Pitcairn group, Pitcairn, Henderson, Oeno and Ducie. The species currently breeding are Murphy's petrel Pterodroma ultima, Kermadec petrel P. neglecta, Herald petrel P. heraldica and Henderson petrel P. atrata. Of these, Murphy's petrel is the most numerous; an estimated 250000 pairs bred on Ducie, which is probably the major breeding station of the species. Novel basic breeding data for Murphy's petrel are presented. Incubation spells, averaging 19.3 days, are exceptionally long for a petrel. Phoenix petrel P. alba appears to have ceased to breed on the Pitcairn Islands since the 1922 surveys of the Whitney Expedition. Nesting success was low on Henderson Island during the study. For all four breeding species, less than 20% of eggs laid yielded fledglings. Failure occurred at the early chick stage and observations indicated that it was due to predation by Pacific rats Rattus exulans. Although rats are present on Ducie, predation was apparently less severe there. The situation on Oeno may be intermediate. I consider how the populations of Henderson are maintained in the face of this intense predation. The Murphy's petrel population may be sustained by immigration from Ducie while the Herald and Henderson petrel populations could be undergoing a long-term decline on Henderson. It is not clear how the Kermadec petrel population is maintained. The conservation implications of these findings are discussed.