The Amazing Albatross!
Editor’s Note: This piece was prepared by our long-time volunteer, Joanna Chin. Photos were provided by her husband, Byron Chin.
Have you ever seen an albatross? Unless you’ve spent a lot of time at sea or have gone out specifically looking for them, you probably have not. Albatrosses are remarkable birds that spend the vast majority of their lives at sea, never touching land for years at a time. If you have seen an albatross, you’re not likely to forget it: they are large, strikingly beautiful birds.
They have incredible wingspans; the wandering albatross, in particular, can have a wingspan of 12 feet! Their long wings allow albatrosses to glide over the waves on the open sea without having to flap. Their gliding flight does not use much energy, which is what enables them to travel hundreds of miles per day. The downside to this style of flight is that they need brisk winds in order to take off, and sometimes need to run into the wind with wings outstretched to help them generate the lift required to take off. While ungainly on land, they are incredibly graceful in the air.
Albatrosses are members of the tubenose family, so named for the little tube-like structures on their bills (see below photo). Unlike many birds, albatrosses have a keen sense of smell thanks to their tube noses – they can smell fish oil from miles away. They cannot dive deeply, so they obtain their prey from the surface of the sea. They eat fish, squid, and invertebrates, and will also scavenge waste from fishing vessels.
Albatrosses mate for life and have an exceedingly low rate of “divorce” so long as both partners are still alive. They have wonderful “dances” that are specific to each species; these dances are used to find mates and reinforce the pair bond. A pair of albatrosses will typically lay a single egg every other year, and it takes an entire year for both parents to raise that one chick.
Both parents contribute equally to brooding and chick-feeding duties. Laysan albatrosses have been known to travel 1,600 miles over the course of 17 days to find food for their chicks! Once the chick fledges, s/he will spend the next 5-7 years at sea before returning to land to look for a mate. During their time at sea, the birds will never once touch land. Once young albatrosses return to land and find a mate, their first attempts at chick rearing are often unsuccessful. Most breeding pairs do not successfully fledge a chick until the age of 8 or 9 years. Birds who are still too young to breed but who return to the colony are very curious and social, and often “visit” the nests and chicks of other birds!
Albatrosses are long-lived birds; some individuals are known to be over 60 years of age. The most famous (and possibly the oldest) is a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom, who was banded on Midway Atoll in 1956 when she was estimated to be five years old based on the fact that she had returned to land. She’s been raising chicks at the same nest site ever since. Interestingly, while most albatrosses raise a chick every other year, Wisdom and her mate have fledged nine chicks since 2006! She’s laid yet another egg as of December 2017, at the age of 67. You can read more about Wisdom’s amazing life here.
With albatrosses having such slow rates of reproduction over the course of their long lives, it’s easy to see where any threat could absolutely decimate their population. Sadly, albatross species worldwide face a number of dire threats:
- Poor fishing practices: Longline fishing, gill nets, and drift nets kill astonishing numbers of albatrosses and other seabirds each year. It is estimated that longline fishing kills 300,000 seabirds every year. One study estimates that the number of albatrosses killed just by Japanese longline fleets in the Southern oceans is 44,000 per year. Improvements in fishing practices can dramatically reduce seabird deaths. For example, weighting long lines so they sink out of reach of birds more quickly and installing bird-scaring streamer lines (which birds interpret as a barrier between them and baited hooks) reduce the number of albatrosses ensnared and killed by longline fishing. Fishing at night has also been helpful, as albatrosses locate their prey by sight as well as smell. There is promising data on a device known as the Hookpod that covers the barbed end of a baited hook until it has sunk to a depth of 10 meters, where albatrosses can’t reach it. Tactics that reduce seabird deaths are beneficial to fishermen as well; a hook that catches a bird is one that does not catch a fish, and seabirds can pluck bait off many hooks before they themselves are ensnared, thus wasting bait from the perspective of the fisherman and further reducing the odds that a line will catch a fish. The USA has adopted these tactics, as have several other countries, and they have reduced the number of seabird deaths. However, because albatrosses have such a wide range over the seas unless every country does this, there will still be needless deaths.
- Plastic waste in the ocean. You’ve probably heard of the Pacific garbage patch, and that’s only the start of the problem. We, humans, use a shocking amount of plastic, and a lot of it ends up in our waterways, and ultimately, the ocean. All seabirds are impacted when they mistake plastic debris for food, or when they become entangled in plastics, such as six-pack rings or fishing line. Tubenoses, and especially albatrosses, are disproportionately impacted for two reasons. One is that they pluck their prey from the surface of the ocean, and plastic floats. The second is that floating plastics grow algae, and there is a compound in algae that, as it breaks down, emits a particular sulfur odor. This same odor is emitted by krill, which eat algae. Seabirds love to eat krill, and because the tubenoses are so driven by scent, they mistakenly eat algae-covered plastic thinking that it is food. The adults feed plastics to their chicks, which can cause gastrointestinal blockages, toxicity from chemicals leached from the plastics, and starvation because a stomach full of plastic cannot accommodate actual food. A recent study found that 90% of the world’s seabirds have eaten plastic, and that number will only rise if plastic pollution increases.
- Introduced predators. Albatrosses have evolved to nest on small Pacific islands where no mammalian (or marsupial) predators existed. The introduction of dogs, cats, rats, mice, stoats, mongoose, possums, etc. has been catastrophic to albatrosses and other ground-nesting seabirds. Dogs and cats kill the adult birds and chicks, while rats, mongoose, and possums will eat their eggs. There has been a disturbing trend recently of mice eating Tristan albatross chicks alive on Gough Island where they breed, causing catastrophic nesting failure. Further, starting in 2015 on Midway Atoll, mice began attacking, eating, and indeed sometimes killing adult albatrosses as they nested. The adults seem unable to defend against such attacks; horrifyingly, they faithfully sit on their nests as they are eaten alive.
- Climate change. The majority of albatrosses worldwide nest on small islands in the Pacific, many of which are just barely above sea level. As global warming progresses and the ice caps melt, sea level is going to rise. At first, nesting colonies will be vulnerable to powerful storms that destroy their nests and chicks. This is happening now – scientists agree that the extremes in weather we are seeing right now are directly driven by human-caused climate change. Eventually, as sea level rises, the islands albatrosses nest on will be completely underwater. Albatrosses have extremely high nest site fidelity: they will stubbornly continue to return to the same nesting site, regardless of how inappropriate it might come to be. This was illustrated on a US Naval base on the island of Kaua’i. In recent years, conservation programs have collected a number of chicks from nests in low-lying breeding colonies and reared them on higher ground in hopes that the chicks, when they return from their years at sea, will return to the place they were raised to start a new nesting colony on safer ground. This has been done with the black-footed albatross, the Chatham Island albatross, the short-tailed albatross, and the Laysan albatross, and may be done with other species in the future.
Here’s What You Can Do To Save These Beautiful Birds:
- Buy ONLY sustainably caught seafood! The Monterey Bay Aquarium runs the Seafood Watch program, which has compiled an enormous amount of information to help consumers select seafood that is sustainably caught. They don’t just tell you which fish to avoid, they tell you why you should avoid it. It encourages consumers to avoid all fish caught using poor longline techniques and other fishing practices that kill seabirds, including albatrosses. You can search by species of fish or your favorite kind of sushi! http://www.seafoodwatch.org
- Reduce your use of plastics, particularly single-use plastics. The Natural Resources Defense Council has an excellent list here: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/10-ways-reduce-plastic-pollution. Especially try to avoid single-use plastics. These are things you use once and throw away, including plastic drinking straws, water bottles, coffee cup lids, stir sticks, plastic bags, plastic wrap, plastic packaging, anything with “microbeads” – the list goes ON! There are excellent alternatives to pretty much every single-use plastic item. Every piece of plastic you don’t use is a piece of plastic that can’t end up in the ocean, or in the belly of an albatross chick.
- Support predator eradication efforts. Introduced predators on Pacific islands have absolutely no place in the ecosystem there and do untold harm. If you live in a country that is lucky enough to have nesting colonies of albatrosses, make sure you vote for people and policies that will support them and fund their conservation. You can also donate directly to groups that are working toward predator eradication on Pacific islands. Such efforts are ongoing in Hawaii (including Midway Atoll), New Zealand, Gough Island (via the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the Galápagos Islands, and many other places. While we’re at it, don’t forget to keep your cat indoors! While you probably don’t have seabirds nesting nearby, outdoor cats are an introduced mammalian predator in any ecosystem. Outdoor cats are estimated to kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds per year in the USA alone! Indoor kitties live longer, healthier lives to boot.
- VOTE! While we can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint, the biggest impact comes from national policy. We need to elect representatives who will advocate and legislate for a healthy planet and a sustainable future. We need policy shaped by people who believe that climate change is a real and imminent threat to our planet and all the species that live on it. We need leaders who believe in and encourage science, and who know that change is necessary and possible to preserve our natural world for generations to come. No election is too small. Even a single citywide plastic bag ban has a measurable impact on plastic waste. Vote early, vote often, and tell your friends and family to vote. The lives of albatrosses, and of all creatures, depend on it.
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s information page on Laysan albatrosses: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Laysan_Albatross/lifehistory#at_habitat
- Article on Hookpods: https://newatlas.com/hookpod/52705/
- Article on Japanese longline fishing impact on albatrosses: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0006320791900314
- Why seabirds eat plastic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/11/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish/
- Most seabirds have eaten plastic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/15092-plastic-seabirds-albatross-australia/
- Sea level rise and albatross nests: http://www.audubon.org/news/climate-change-may-swallow-albatross-nesting-grounds-sooner-we-thought
- Black-footed albatross relocation project: https://www.islandconservation.org/black-footed-albatross-move-oahu/
- Mouse predation of Tristan albatross chicks: https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/biodiversity/archive/2014/10/28/mice-predation-causes-devastating-tristan-albatross-breeding-success-in-uk-overseas-territory.aspx
- Mouse aggression against adult albatross on Midway: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Midway_Atoll/news/mouse.html