Bird capture and release story

Article | Updated 7 years ago

Image of an atoll in the ocean
Image of an atoll in the ocean
WA Museum

This is a bird capture and release story told by the Western Australian Museum's Curator of Ornithology Ron Johnstone. Thousands of kilometres from the Western Australian coast, shipwrecked sailors tagged a giant petrel. The bird flew to Western Australia and the note was found. Listen below to hear what happens next: 




Ron Johnstone: That was probably one of the most remarkable sort of mark and recapture records in Western Australian history because that occurred in 1887 and in that year, two boys at Trigg Island found what they thought was a dead albatross with a tin collar around its neck and it had the following message on it: “thirteen shipwrecked sailors have taken refuge on Crozet Island on August the fourth 1887”.

One of the lads was actually Colonel Mainsbridge, he was the Resident Magistrate in Perth and after they got the details from this tin, a jam tin – they sent a telegram quickly off to London but the message didn’t get through to the French until quite a bit later, you know, I think it was around October and the French immediately sent a ship to save these guys but the ship arrived and found a note a couple of days before, (it was almost like the Burke and Wills tree) these guys had taken off in a long boat and it looks as though they’d thrown what they thought was an albatross up in the air with that tin around its neck - it was probably an act of desperation because they’d been there for about five months and obviously run out of food and stuff.

But that bird travelled a distance of around three thousands and twenty seven miles, it was recorded - so it was travelling daily about sixty-six miles because they had the date when it was first marked, but unfortunately when the boat got there - the French guys - they found the sailors had taken off and were never seen again. So the bird did its the job, getting that – but when we started to look at [what they thought] was an albatross - actually no albatrosses’ nest on that island, on Crozet, and so we worked out it would have been a giant petrel and when you look at our banding records now for giant petrels and the French have banded quite literally hundreds of them in the sub-Antarctic, this is one of the species it does get out of that sub-Antarctic area after it’s bred during the winter months, so they move up and we regularly get them – often young birds too you know, sort of shipwrecked, wrecks of these birds on the WA coasts, and as I said particularly in winter. So they’re birds from that sub-Antarctic zone.