The Amazing Albatrosses

They fly 50 miles per hour. Go years without touching land. Predict the weather. Mate for life. And they’re among the world’s most endangered birds. Can albatrosses be saved?

Of the 21 albatross species, 19 are threatened or endangered. The Chatham albatross is critically endangered, with only about 11,000 of the birds remaining. (Kennedy Warne)
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Albatrosses are masters of soaring flight, able to glide over vast tracts of ocean without flapping their wings. So fully have they adapted to their oceanic existence that they spend the first six or more years of their long lives (which last upwards of 50 years) without ever touching land. Most live in the Southern Hemisphere, the exceptions being the black-footed albatross of the Hawaiian archipelago and a few nearby islands; the short-tailed albatross, which breeds near Japan; the waved albatross of equatorial Galápagos; and the Laysan albatross of the North Pacific.

Everything about albatrosses underscores the difficulty of eking out an existence in their environment. Unlike penguins, which can hunt for extended periods underwater and dive to great depths, albatrosses can plunge into only the top few feet of the ocean, for squid and fish. The lengthy albatross "chickhood" is an adaptation to a patchy food supply: a slow-maturing chick needs food less often than a fast-maturing one. (Similarly, the prolonged adolescence—around 12 years in wandering albatrosses—is an extended education during which birds prospect the oceans, learning where and when to find food.) The chick's nutritional needs cannot be met by a single parent. Mate selection, therefore, is a critical decision, and is all about choosing a partner that can bring home the squid.

Jean-Claude Stahl of the Museum of New Zealand has studied courtship and pairing in southern Buller's albatrosses, which breed on the Snares Islands—a naturalist's El Dorado where penguins patter along forest paths, sea lions sleep in shady glades and myriad shearwaters blacken the evening sky. In Buller's albatrosses the search for a partner takes several years. It begins when adolescent birds are in their second year ashore, at about age 8. They spend time with potential mates in groups known as gams, the albatross equivalent of singles bars. In their third year ashore, males stake a claim to a nest site and females shop around, inspecting the various territory-holding males. "Females do the choosing, and their main criterion seems to be the number of days a male can spend ashore—presumably a sign of foraging ability," says Stahl.

Pairs finally form in the fourth year ashore. Albatross fidelity is legendary; in southern Buller's albatrosses, only 4 percent will choose new partners. In the fifth year, a pair may make its first breeding attempt. Breeding is a two-stage affair. "Females have to reach a sufficiently fat state to trigger the breeding feeling and return to the colony," says Paul Sagar of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. "When they are back, the local food supply determines whether or not an egg is produced."

The breeding pair returns to the same nest year after year, adding a fresh layer of peat and vegetation until the pedestal becomes as tall as a top hat.

Because it takes so long for the birds to produce a chick, albatross populations are keenly vulnerable to threats on their breeding islands. Introduced predators such as rodents and feral cats—the islands have no native land mammals—pose a danger, especially to defenseless chicks, which are left alone for long periods while their parents shuttle back and forth from distant feeding grounds. In one of the most extreme examples of seabird predation, mice on Gough Island, in the South Atlantic, are decimating the populations of petrels and albatrosses that breed there, killing an estimated 1,000 Tristan albatross chicks a year.

Natural disasters also cause heavy losses. In 1985, storm surges washed over two royal albatross breeding islands in the Chathams, killing chicks and, even more problematic, removing much of the islands' scant soil and vegetation. With the albatrosses lacking nesting material in subsequent years, the breeding success rate dropped from 50 percent to 3 percent: the birds laid their eggs on bare rock, and most eggs were broken during incubation.

Yet the most pernicious threats to albatrosses today are not to chicks but to adult birds. Along with other seabirds, they are locked in a competitive battle with humankind for the food resources of the sea—and the birds are losing. This is not just because of the efficiency of modern fishing practices but because fishing equipment—hooks, nets and trawl wires—inflict a heavy toll of injury and death.

John Croxall, a seabird scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has described the decrease in numbers in some albatross species as "catastrophic." Given the role of fisheries in their decline, he says, knowledge of the birds' distribution at sea and their foraging patterns is "critical to their conservation."

Over the past two decades, high-tech tracking devices such as the GPS loggers used by Scofield on the Pyramid have begun to fill in gaps in our knowledge about where albatrosses roam and where they are coming into lethal contact with fishing operations. Previously, when an albatross flew away from its breeding island, it virtually disappeared, its activities and whereabouts unknown. But now the lives of these birds are being revealed in all their unimagined complexity, stunning accomplishment and tragic vulnerability.


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