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Where the Gooney Birds are

More than 400,000 albatross pairs nest on Midway Atoll, which is now the site of an extraordinary National Wildlife Refuge

Despite much bravery displayed, Midway Island’s contribution to the battle that bears its name may seem marginal. In a battle, though, nothing stays simple except who won. Some small ironies of war apply here. Except in numbers of planes, the three American carriers and their escorting cruisers and destroyers patrolling northeast of Midway were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Japanese fleet to the northwest. In fact, the attempt to keep Japan from taking Midway and making the Pacific a Japanese lake was desperate; the U.S. carriers were able to try it only because America had broken a Japanese code and knew what the Japanese fleet intended—but not precisely where it could be found.

And the course of history was changed

It was a crucial radio message from one of Midway’s patrolling PBYs, which glimpsed enemy ships around 6 A.M. on the 4th, that gave the searching carriers the initial range and bearing that they needed. Moreover, the island’s effort at defense had been fierce enough that the Japanese decided to make another strike before the invasion. As a result, when the American dive-bombers and torpedo bombers struck, the Japanese carriers had planes on deck and below being loaded with bombs and gasoline. When they were hit, the explosive damage was tremendous. In a few minutes, while Japanese defenses relentlessly shot down the U.S. torpedo bombers, the unnoticed dive-bombers plummeted to sink three Japanese aircraft carriers. A fourth was sunk later. Thus Midway was saved from the Japanese, and the balance of power in the Pacific changed forever.

American involvement with Midway Atoll goes back well before those dramatic moments during World War II. It began July 5, 1859, when the uninhabited "guano" island, laden with bird droppings used for fertilizer back on the mainland, was claimed by one Captain Middlebrooks for the United States.

In 1903, the year Teddy Roosevelt created the first wildlife refuge—three-acre Pelican Island on the east coast of Florida—he sent 21 Marines to Midway, largely to protect the albatross from marauding Japanese. That same year the first round-the-world cable and wireless company put a station on Midway and erected five handsome houses, eventually importing 9,000 tons of topsoil full of alien seeds, and planting nonnative trees and flowers.

When the cable company came, only a few thousand albatross pairs lived on Midway, but the population did recover. They stayed there with the U.S. Navy through the 1930s, when it created a forward-area base on the atoll. And thousands of them watched as the big flying boats, the Pan Am Clippers, landed in Midway’s lagoon during the late 1930s, carrying rich and sometimes famous passengers on their way to Asia. The gooneys managed to survive not only the Japanese attack in 1942 but the Navy’s attempt to keep runways clear from the 1940s to the 1970s. During this period, the Navy killed more than 50,000 birds with bulldozers and flamethrowers to keep them from flying into their early, underpowered jet aircraft and causing crashes.

The number of albatross held more or less steady until the population began climbing in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s. But modern times brought new kinds of problems. When feeding on the surface of the ocean, they collectively gulp down—and later throw up if they aren’t killed by them—thousands of plastic cigarette lighters mistaken for squid. Behind the Oceanic Society’s research office on Sand, seven large cartons overflow with stuff from gooney bird stomachs. Not only are there lighters, but plastic pencils, spools, toy tops, hairpins, combs, tiny lightbulbs, even a small radio tube from the days before transistors.

Time to fly or die

On Midway, late June or early July is shocking for any visitor who harbors any lingering romantic notions about the albatross. It’s been seven months of hard work, and most albatross parents are returning to the nest just once every two to three days. They are waiting for that moment when the chick is gone—out on its own. For the thousands of gooney bird fledglings, each day more assailed by heat, thirst and hunger, the time has come to fly or die. Or at any rate get the squid that provide them with life-giving food and drink. Fortunately, more than 90 percent will make it.

At this stage they are at their gooneyest, with their comical, intense, nearly cross-eyed look, enormous triangular feet, huge wings and long bills. In the process of shedding the thick gray down from their heads and necks, they acquire ridiculous hairdos. Initially, this can put you in mind of bewigged English magistrates or Cyril Ritchard playing Captain Hook. Later, if their from-the-top-down shedding is balanced left and right, they wear sideburns.

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