Cats are slaughtering birds in Hawaii. Here's how one island is responding. – SF Gate

Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) young are cute balls of fluff. 
Kauai’s North Shore may be an island paradise, with dramatic cliffs swooping down to a turquoise sea. But those cliffs hide a dark secret: thousands of invasive predators, waiting for sundown to begin their nightly massacres. 
In January, one or two of the brutal killing machines crept through a breeding colony of Laysan albatross on the island and snatched 13 downy, vulnerable chicks from under their parents’ behinds. In minutes, nearly half the colony’s hatchlings had been reduced to tiny heaps of bloody feathers. 
Volunteers at the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens were stunned and horrified. But they didn’t need evidence from the trail cameras to know the culprit. Feral cats are the only ones who kill that way.
“Most of the chicks were taken when they were 24 to 48 hours old,” said Julie Murphy, who has volunteered with the garden for 11 years, helping care for the albatross colony. “The cats can smell the chick and they just reach with their paws under the bird and take it away. It’s a huge problem for all birds, but it’s particularly hazardous for albatross that nest on the ground.”
Most Laysan albatross make their homes on a tiny, low-lying island more than a thousand miles from Kauai. But that home faces rapidly rising sea levels and will eventually be uninhabitable. Kauai’s North Shore may just be the refuge they need — if humans can make it safe for them. To do that, conservationists have been doing everything from building expensive, elaborate fencing systems to putting small domes on individual birds every night. 
“Kauai offers good nesting habitat,” said Suzanne Case, chair of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. “It’s the closest island to the northwest Hawaiian islands. On Kauai’s North Shore there are typically high bluffs so the birds are more protected from sea level rise.”
A couple of moli, or Laysan albatrosses, displaying courtship behavior on the Princeville Makai Golf Club on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. 
The Laysan albatross wears a smoky eye and a distinctive tuxedo of feathers draped over wings that span up to 7 feet, carrying it hundreds of miles over the ocean without a single flap. They are long-lived birds, and a spunky 71-year-old gal named Wisdom is considered the world’s oldest known wild bird. Researchers estimate she’s flown more than 3 million miles over her lifetime. 
Moli couples mate for life, taking turns incubating the lone chicks they raise each year. The loss of each chick is significant. If one dies, its parents keep sitting on the nest for days, waiting for their baby to come home. They are so docile, and so unequipped for predation, that volunteers can walk right up and check the nest without disturbing them. If they find a parent sitting on an empty nest, that’s cat predation.
“This year we started with thirty-five nests,” a newsletter from the garden said. “Eight nests were abandoned by the parents, leaving twenty-seven chicks. Of these, thirteen were killed, presumably by feral cats, and two others died for unknown reasons.”
Laysan albatross are known in Hawaii as moli. Kehaulani Kekua, a kumu hula — master teacher in the art of hula and chant — told me that the name “moli” comes from the Native Hawaiian traditional art of tattooing. A moli is also the needle that was traditionally made from the birds’ sharp wing bones and used to create intricate designs. Kekua also said the moli is included in the Kumulipo, a centuries-old Hawaiian creation chant passed down through generations that describes the birthing of life forms on the islands. “Born was the Moho,” goes the 2,000-plus-line poem, referring to a now-extinct native of Hawaii. “Out emerged its child the Moli.”
I’ve long had a deep affection for moli. Throughout my childhood, I visited my grandfather on Kauai every winter. He wasn’t a beach guy, but he loved hiking and celebrated the island’s beauty by carving bird sculptures from wood. Whenever he took me bird watching, we would always stop at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the North Shore to see the Laysan albatross who come there in the winter to breed and nest. He taught me to love the moli, with its goose-sized body and goofy walk.
But that charming docility, which evolved over millions of years roosting on islands with no natural predators, has left them supremely unprepared for our invasion — or for the feral cats, pigs, lead paint and everything else we brought with us.
Laysan albatross mingle with the military remnants of WWII, in this case a rusting gun, on the Eastern Island of the Midway Atoll. 
The Laysan albatross is far from the most endangered bird in the world: With an estimated 800,000 adult pairs in the world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource considers them a “near-threatened” species. It has even rebounded from declines in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the birds’ fate is complicated and far from secure. 
Some die when they live on the open ocean, either killed by eating plastic trash, smacked by passing ships or caught by industrial fishing operations. When they come on land to breed and raise young, they’re — forgive me — sitting ducks for predators. Mongooses, introduced by humans, have wiped out nearly all of the colonies on Hawaii’s eight major islands, except for a couple of colonies on Oahu and a few dozen on Kauai. The birds have a better chance of thriving on Kauai as it’s the only island without mongoose. 
Most Laysan albatross live 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, on a 2.5-square-mile ring of exposed coral reef called Midway Atoll. Three-quarters of all nesting pairs build their homes on the low-lying island. Although huge numbers of the birds were killed by lead paint used on America’s World War II military base there, the buildings have since been torn down, allowing for a population resurgence. Few humans live on Midway, and no invasive species harass them, making it a safe refuge — for now. 
Sadly, models project Midway Atoll is destined to be inundated by rising seas within decades. Countless scientists and volunteers believe that Kauai, home to about 1,000 moli, could be the birds’ Noah’s ark.
In 2021, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources eradicated the rat population on a tiny uninhabited island west of Kauai known as Lehua, creating a safer space for albatross, as well as more than a dozen other seabird species. “It’s another high island with cliffs on all sides,” said Case, who worked for the Nature Conservancy before joining the DLNR.
Getting rid of the rats may have created one safe harbor, but even greater efforts are needed to protect the long-term future of the moli around Hawaii. “I’m pretty much just interested in protecting the wildlife on this planet as much as possible,” Murphy said. “We have to do something quick.”
While Laysan albatross spend the first three years or so of their lives wandering widely over the open ocean, a safe place to lay eggs and raise young is critical to their survival. Eggs are laid between November and December; chicks fledge in July and fly out to sea. They return to land and begin to “date,” playing the field for several years before coupling up for good any time between 5 and 8 years old. 
“The teenagers come to Kauai for the singles bar,” said Hob Osterlund, founder of the Kauai Albatross Network that helps landowners create safe spaces for the birds. “That’s where you see all the boogieing and all that beautiful dance, that’s what they do as they go to the dance and figure out who they want to choose as a long-term partner.”
You can always tell when a pair is looking for a mate: They engage in an elaborate courtship dance, preening one another, swinging their heads from side to side and pointing their bills straight up while calling.
Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis).
Kauai can only be a refuge for moli if they can be protected from the creatures there. Dogs and feral pigs can be kept away from the birds with fences. Cats, though, are much sneakier. 
A complex fencing project at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge protects an 8-acre site and two colonies of albatross from predators, and there are plans for more fencing, but these projects are extremely expensive. 
“Cats have an easier time of getting through and over fencing and rats can either get over or under,” said Thomas Daubert, executive director of Friends of Kauai Wildlife Refuges. “There’s unique technology at Kilauea Point that cats can’t climb over or under, that’s a whole different type of technology and based on a model from New Zealand, but it’s expensive. As the technology evolves I would love to see more and more places choose to do this.”
The problem with cats is far from unique to Hawaii; the American Bird Association estimates outdoor cats kill about 2.4 billion birds in the United States every year. But it’s an especially severe problem on the islands, because native birds like the Laysan albatross and other species — many that are far more threatened — have no native predators and no protective adaptations. A feral cat task force estimated in 2014 that Kauai is home to an estimated 20,000 cats.
“These birds are amazing products of evolution and they travel hundreds of miles for food,” said Andre Raine, a wildlife biologist and project coordinator for the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project. “Then they come back to land and get torn to shreds by this predator that we’ve let loose on the landscape, and then their chicks are starving to death.”
Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) adult with their young. 
As long as feral cats still colonize the islands, humans will have to put in hard labor to protect the birds. Lately, some on the island have been experimenting with placing tiny pyramids of chicken wire and PVC pipe over the birds’ nests each night — Murphy calls them “domes” — and removing them early in the morning. The birds are so patient and trusting, volunteers can walk right up and plop a yurt over them.
“The albatross has been around for millions of years and has adjusted to man and what mankind has thrown at it, and we do as much as we can to protect them,” said Murphy, a long-time volunteer with the garden. “We felt like if we didn’t do something we weren’t going to have any chicks.”
And it worked: The remaining chicks all survived, except for one. The team ran out of supplies, Murphy said. One nest was left exposed; a cat got the chick the first night. 
“It’s scary that you have to go to those lengths to protect them,” said Case, noting that the domes are a wonderful idea. “These birds are completely vulnerable.”
Raine also told me the domes are a great idea, but hardly a long-term solution.  
“The domes have saved albatross lives,” Raine said. “But I think if we’re having to resort to something so extreme, that shows how serious the problem is, right? If you’re having to take individual albatross at night and protect them with their own yards, because they’re being slaughtered, this presents the problem we’re faced with.”
Ultimately, there’s only one solution to the problem, Case told me: Not allowing the cats to freely roam the islands. 
The island of Kauai took a big step toward this solution this month. The Kauai County Council voted unanimously in favor of legislation that makes feeding feral cats on county property illegal, the Garden Island newspaper reported. The mayor still needs to sign the bill into law. 
Case said the trap-neuter-release method that’s supported by many animal welfare organizations doesn’t go far enough. Once the cats are released back into the wild, they return to killing. 
“​​Trap, neuter and keep them home is a much better policy,” she told me.
Editor’s note: SFGATE recognizes the importance of diacritical marks in the Hawaiian language. We are unable to use them due to the limitations of our publishing platform.
Amy Graff is the news editor for SFGATE. She was born and raised in the Bay Area and got her start in news at the Daily Californian newspaper at UC Berkeley where she majored in English literature. She has been with SFGATE for more than 10 years. You can email her at