Albatrosses

Wild Bird Profiles-Albatrosses

In 1798 when the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he chose the regal albatross to play a starring role. These days, few people have seen an albatross. These birds spend most of their lives at sea – indeed, some species are so devoted to the ocean that they return to land to breed only every other year – and they are becoming increasingly imperiled.

Albatrosses are members of the same family as storm-petrels and tubenoses, but are quite distinctive from both. Famously, albatrosses are the largest flying birds on earth, with a wingspan exceeding 340 cm or 11 feet. The birds are so large that achieving liftoff is a complicated process, and requires the albatross to build up speed along a flat runway, much like an airplane. In the air, albatrosses are perfectly adapted to gliding. Their wings are stiff and narrow, and have perfected two types of gliding techniques to suit their life history. For traveling long distances, the birds use dynamic soaring, rising into the wind and descending gradually. When searching for food closer to the ocean’s surface, the albatrosses are able to use slope soaring to catch the air rising from the windward side of large waves. Uniquely, albatrosses are almost as graceful on land as they are in the air. Despite their large size and awkwardly large wings, the birds are capable walkers, and can maneuver around obstacles to reach their nesting ground. Most other species in their biological family cannot walk well on land.

Another often-referenced characteristic of albatrosses is that they are monogamous, sometimes for life. Albatrosses breed in colonies and are highly philopatric, meaning that they usually return to the same nesting ground year after year. Incredibly, one study found that Laysan Albatrosses only moved an average of 22 m or 72 feet from the nest site at which they hatched. Albatrosses are renowned for their breeding rituals, which young birds must gradually learn. The complex dances involve ritualized actions such as preening, sky-pointing, calling, staring at another bird, and clacking its bill. Once two birds are established as a pair, the dancing is not repeated, but individuals will often greet each other at the nest by clicking their bills together.

Both albatross parents incubate their eggs, and rotate between parents. Incubation lasts between 70 and 80 days, the longest incubation period of any bird. The chicks are semi-altricial, meaning that they are covered in down upon hatching but are still unable to feed or thermoregulate. The chick is guarded and fed for nearly a month, and fledging does not occur until up to 8 months after hatching in larger species. Once fledged, albatross chicks leave the nest and begin their lives at sea. Studies have suggested that the young birds possess an innate ability to navigate that is possibly genetically coded.

Out of 21 species of albatross, 19 are listed as endangered by the IUCN and the other two are listed as threatened. The Amsterdam Albatross and the Chatham Albatross are considered as critically endangered. Global efforts are underway to reduce threats to these magnificent birds. Perhaps one day these birds will no longer be at risk of a death similar to that of the ill-fated albatross in Cole ridge’s famous poem.

About the Author: Chantelle Voss is the Owner of YourBirdOasis.com and a birding enthusiast. Your Bird Oasis will help you transform your garden into your own bird oasis with a variety of beautiful Bird Baths, Bird Feeders, and Bird Houses to choose from. With exquisite artistic Bird Bath Fountains, Bird Bath Bowls, Decorative Bird Feeders at your convenience, you can add a unique touch to your garden and create a haven for the birds in your area.

Photo by Bryan Parkinson