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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

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You start out by simply wanting to cheer them on their way, especially when they flail at the air with outsized wings. Standard flight exhortations run to "Go! Go! Go!" or "Get with it, buddy!" One gray dawn, while watching some young birds perched on a seawall flapping but not flying, a teacher from Hawaii, who has raised four sons, bursts out, "There’s breakfast out there! Don’t you want your breakfast?"

As the days grow hotter, with no breeze or rain, the birds are even less mobile. We want to help them. If they move at all in the heat now, it is mostly to shuffle into a nearby patch of shade. Outside my window in Charlie barracks, a row of ten have edged into the slender shadow of a single telephone pole. But most birds just sit there waiting as the sun burns down upon them.

Why don’t they move at least a bit farther in search of shade? I wonder. Unhappily, their biological makeup prevents them from straying too far away from the spot where they were born, the location to which their parents have brought them food for months on end. Each afternoon when the sun is at its hottest, a curious and unsettling spectacle presents itself on the island’s largest expanse of grassy field. The space, lined on its eastern side with tall ironwood trees, is vastly larger than Yankee Stadium. Evenly spaced at about five-foot intervals, legions of fledgling albatross are stationed there, motionless. Many hundreds of them face away from the sun in concert, like a field of the faithful praying toward Mecca. The tips of their huge feet are protected from the sun’s heat by their bodies and raised off the ground for better circulation. Birds fairly close to the trees have gravitated into broad strips of shade. There is plenty of room for more, but the multitudes do not stir.

The gooney dances to get the girl

Nothing can be done, of course. There are too many. Up to a thousand a day are dying and are picked up in the wee hours and hauled to the incinerator. "This is not Disneyland," Heidi Auman has said. "Mother Nature takes its course here, and it’s survival of the fittest. It has to be that way." Still, like many other softhearted visitors, and many island dwellers with lawns, I decide to use a hose, in this case the one attached outside Charlie barracks for rinsing sandy feet, to give a quick sprinkle to the dehydrated fledglings nearby.

Fledglings that fly this spring, if they live, will spend two to seven years at sea before returning to Midway to find a mate. Whereas the great frigate bird and sooty tern stay aloft the whole time because their feathers are not weatherproof, the albatross spends as much as half of its time floating on the surface of the ocean, preening, resting and feeding. Albatross don’t breed until they are 8 or 9 years old, the average life expectancy of most songbirds. Why albatross and all other seabirds exhibit what ornithologists call "deferred breeding" remains one of the biggest mysteries in the biology of these animals.

When the albatross return home from their extensive wanderings, they look for a mate and practice an elaborate head-bobbing courtship dance. While the dance looks absurd and quite gooney, it provides a critical function: each bird is making sure that it is in sync with its potential mate. Albatross and other seabirds share an unusual trait—males and females split the duties involved in incubating the egg. Over a period of a month or two, the albatross pair must coordinate their comings and goings so the egg is protected from the hot sun. Should one parent stay away too long or both become hungry at the same time, the egg could be in jeopardy. Individual variations exist among birds, just as they do with humans, and if the parents are not on the same schedule, then problems will occur. "The level of communication that goes on between the couple," says Smithsonian research associate Elizabeth Schreiber, "is truly remarkable. Somehow they can discover their compatibility quite accurately during a series of courtship dances. Once they’ve selected a mate that works, the two will remain together for life, which can span more than 50 years."

Albatross are the islands' soul

After the egg hatches, around mid-January, the parents make many trips to sea to feed the chick. Recently, a small telemetric device fastened to a foraging Laysan parent from an island near Midway revealed that it had flown nonstop for 4,000 miles in search of food for its chick. Research using telemetry reveals that albatross don’t wander aimlessly, but instead are careful students of the wind and currents and where the fish are. The albatross digestive system includes a device like those that dairymen use to separate cream from milk. It takes fresh squid and processes it into two separate compartments, one for nourishing oil and the other for everything else. The energy-rich oil is stored to be fed to chicks back at the nest, while the rest is digested by the adult. The returning father or mother regurgitates breakfast in the form of a ghastly gray gruel. Spring isn’t spring here, it’s fledging time.

Today, Midway’s 400,000 nesting pairs represent 70 percent of the world’s Laysan population; they are by far the most numerous albatross species. Many of the 20 other species are not thriving. One reason is relentless and general—decrease in habitat. Read increase in people. Another is cruel and specific: longline fishing. Black-footed albatross particularly strike too often at baited hooks and drown.

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