The Newell’s Shearwater and Hawaiian petrel seabirds, already on the brink of extinction, are dying by the hundreds in collisions with power lines on Kauai.

A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that as many as 1,800 of the indigenous seabirds are dying every year when they fly into power lines, a rate that is raising alarms for community members and conservationists.

Both birds were provided special protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in the 1960s and ’70s as a result of numerous threats to their existence. In addition to the power line problem, invasive predator species and the degradation of the seabirds’ habitat have contributed to their endangered status.

“For many years folks have known that birds have been colliding with these power lines, but we assumed it was a smaller issue,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization.

Newell’s shearwater was protected as endangered in 1975. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“This study is revealing that these collisions may be the biggest threat — power lines are killing huge parts of the population,” Hartl said.

The USFWS study predicts that, unless measures are taken to reduce the deaths, all colonies of the two species on Kauai could vanish in about 30 years.

A study released in June by the American Ornithological Society found that between 1993 and 2013, the Newell’s Shearwater population decreased by 94 percent.

In 2010, Kauai County officials decided to move Friday night high school football games to Saturday afternoons in an effort to protect Newell’s Shearwaters.

The nocturnal birds would continuously revolve around the bright stadium lights until collapsing.

Earlier this year, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing four games to be played on Friday night under stadium lights.

But power lines remain a significant threat to the seabird population and several Kauai groups as well as the Kauai utility are working on ways to save them.

One idea is installing lasers on utility poles that warn the birds away from the power lines.

The power lines run parallel to — above and below — each other instead of side by side.

Hartl says that configuration unintentionally acts as an invisible barrier for the birds.

“It’s basically like we’ve put a giant fence around the island that they can’t see, so they crash into the lines at full force,” Hartl said.

The Hawaiian petrel was protected as endangered under federal law in 1967 . Andre Raine/Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

The Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project is helping to install  lasers on some utility poles on the island.

Theresa Geelhoed, field technician for the project, said this measure alone could reduce collisions by 50 percent if applied in all necessary areas.

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is also removing the top line from each utility tower in high collision areas in an effort to reduce the number of fatal encounters.

“We found that the power lines that the birds are (colliding) with most are the ones at the top,” Geelhoed said.

The USFWS study says that despite the sharp decline in the Newell’s Shearwater population, proper and timely mitigation strategies could help certain colonies survive past the current mid- to end- of century extinction projection.

“The good news is, since it’s a man-made problem, there’s something that can be done to work toward fixing it,” Geelhoed said.


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