Hundreds of abandoned baby Cape Cormorants poke their little beaks through the side of a cardboard box, eagerly awaiting their feed at a seabird rescue centre in South Africa’s coastal city of Cape Town.
Slim-necked and still covered in baby fluff, the grey-speckled chicks were found starving on rocky outcrops of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed during apartheid, after their parents rejected them last month.
Around 2,000 were shipped to the mainland via boat and taken to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCOBB), where rescuing these endangered animals has been a delicate operation.
Over 800 succumbed to weakness and dehydration during the trip and soon after arrival, despite desperate efforts to keep them alive.
But the rest have recovered and now gobble more than a tonne of sardines per week.
“They certainly are eating us out of house and home,” chuckles SANCOBB response manager Nicky Stander.
Between 30 and 50 volunteers show up each day to feed, weigh and clean the orphaned chicks.
Donning green plastic dungarees, they delicately slip tubes into the cormorants’ beaks and send fluid into their stomachs.
“If they are not swimming they need to be hydrated manually,” Stander explains. “It’s very labour intensive… because of the numbers we have.”
The youngest chicks are wrapped in soft towels and kept in separate baby pens at the nursery section.
Not yet old enough to eat on their own, they are delicately hand-fed small pieces of sardine and hydrated with a syringe.
– Swimming lessons –
Older cormorants are kept in a larger enclosure where there is space to start stretching their wings and swim.
As volunteers walk in with glistening trays of sardines the birds eagerly lift their heads, revealing a lighter patch of feathers under their beaks.
The chicks were frail when they arrived and only weighed between 300 and 600 grams (11-21 ounces).
As they grow into healthy adults they are expected to reach about one kilogramme.
Before release “we have to wait for them to grow their plumage feathers so that they can then become waterproof”, says Stander.
“Then it’s a case of making sure we get them (swimming) in the pools.”
While the strongest birds are almost ready to go, chicks in the nursery will still have to wait until the end of the month.
SANCOBB, South Africa’s largest seabird rescue service, usually treats around 2,000 animals per year at its dedicated hospital.
Capacity was swamped by the cormorants’ arrival, and tourist viewing decks have been temporarily turned into food production sites to cope.
Shelter workers are puzzled by the mass stranding and worry it could signal the start of a worrying trend.
“Initially we thought the birds were abandoned because of high summer heat,” says Stander.
“But after consulting with other scientists we now believe a lack of food is the probable cause.”
Stander warns it is a “red flag” for the impacts of overfishing in the area.
Without sufficient food, she says cormorants are likely to continue abandoning their chicks or even stop breeding altogether.
“We have been seeing emaciated birds coming into the centre for years,” she notes. “What we are scared of is that this is going to happen more and more in the future.”