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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Many New Zealand fishers have adopted ingenious methods to reduce injuring and killing seabirds—or attracting them to boats in the first place (see sidebar, opposite). However, there is some evidence to suggest that fisheries may benefit albatross populations: a ready supply of discarded fish reduces competition for food between and within albatross species and provides an alternative food source to predatory birds such as skua, which often attack albatross chicks. Sagar and Stahl's research in the Snares Islands suggests that the free lunch boosts the number of chicks that fledge in a given year. They found that 70 percent of feedings brought by adult birds to their chicks contained discards from nearby fisheries.

Does this mean that fishing is a net benefit to seabird populations? Should the industry be given "a conservation award for the thousands of seabirds it supports," as one fisheries consultant gamely suggested to me?

Not at all, says Stahl. In albatrosses—long-lived, slow-maturing species that produce a single chick every one to two years—the long-term negative impact of adult death far outweighs the short-term benefit of chick survival. It may take three, four or even five successful chick rearings to compensate for the death of just one parent, says Stahl. He calculates that "even small increases in adult mortality can wipe out the benefit of tons of discards fed to chicks."

Although Scofield's tracking of Chatham albatrosses shows that they, too, frequent the same fishing grounds as deep-sea trawlers, not enough work has been done to compare the benefits of chick survival with the costs of adult deaths from fishing vessels. "We don't know the degree to which we're propping them up," says Scofield.

One albatross population that has unashamedly been propped up is the colony of endangered northern royal albatrosses at Taiaroa Head, near the city of Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island. Taiaroa Head is one of the only places in the world where a visitor can get close to great albatrosses. The colony is tiny, with only 140 individuals, and the breeding effort is managed assiduously—"lovingly" would not be too strong a word.

Royal albatross chicks are nest-bound for nine months. Providing meals for these chicks is so demanding that the parents take a year off before breeding again. Lyndon Perriman, the senior ranger, described to me some of the ingenious techniques used to maximize reproductive success.

"If a bird has been sitting on an egg for 10 days and has not been relieved by its partner, we put the egg in an incubator and give the bird a fiberglass replica to sit on," he said. "If the partner hasn't returned by day 15, we start to supplementary-feed the sitting bird, giving it salmon smolts. But we prefer not to interfere. It could simply be that the partner has hit a patch of calm weather somewhere and is struggling to get back. But at day 20 it's pretty clear the partner isn't coming back, and a chick with only one parent won't survive, so we take the fiberglass egg away, and the bird figures out that breeding for that year is over."

"We also take the egg away from first-time breeders, because they tend to be clumsy with their big webbed feet and are likely to break the egg," Perriman said. "We'll either give the real egg to a pair that's sitting on a dud—broken or infertile or whatever—or keep it in the incubator until it hatches." Breeding success is 72 percent, compared with an estimated 33 percent had humans not assisted.

Adult birds at Taiaroa have died of heat exhaustion, so rangers turn on sprinklers during hot, still days. There was no danger of the birds overheating when I visited, with raindrops spattering the tinted windows of the observatory. I picked up a toy albatross, a life-size replica of a fully grown chick. It was surprisingly heavy, weighted to match the real thing: 20 pounds. Fledglings of most albatross species weigh 50 percent more than adults. They need the extra fat to tide them over when they are learning to feed themselves.

A tour group crowded against the observatory's viewing window. A few yards away an albatross was hunkered down on its nest, protecting its chick from a gale then whipping the hillside. A voice exclaimed: "Look! There she goes!" A chorus of admiring gasps and sighs followed as the bird spread its "vast archangel wings"—Melville's majestic description in Moby-Dick—and soared past the lighthouse on its way out to sea.


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