At first glance and from a distance, you may confuse an albatross with a gull. It’s an easy mistake. They’re both seabirds with long, narrow wings. They both have mostly white feathers and stout bodies.
But, no offense to the gulls, albatrosses are way cooler, though it’s likely you’ve never seen one up close. They live on the wing, primarily over the waters of the Southern Hemisphere and throughout the Pacific Ocean, and only visit land to raise their chicks.
Ready for Takeoff
Albatrosses are the largest seabirds, and the largest of all— the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)— soars on wings of nearly 11 feet long. They put those long wings to good use. They are experts at using the wind currents to travel hundreds of miles without flapping once.
As graceful and majestic as they are in the air, they are incredibly awkward on land, waddling about like penguins. When the wind is calm, they have to run for a good long way to build up enough speed to take off.
Tubenose. Albatrosses are part of the group of seabirds known as tubenoses. They have a neat feature on their bills that can filter salt, which allows them to drink seawater.
It takes a village
Albatrosses build their nests on the ground in colonies. Both parents have to bring food for the chick every 3-4 days in order for it to gain the necessary weight. (Full-grown albatrosses are a hefty 22 pounds!) Occasionally the parents are gone for a week or more, traveling hundreds of miles to collect enough squid and fish, leaving the chick behind in the care of its “aunties.”
Laysan albatrosses nesting on Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge. The birds with the dark heads are juveniles. (Photo credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
It takes the chicks an average of six months to gain enough strength in their wings to leave the nest, after which time they will stay at sea for the next five to ten years, until they are ready to mate. Sometimes young albatrosses will come ashore during mating season to “practice.”
Speaking of mating, albatrosses have a very unique way of selecting their partner: they dance. I could describe it, but I’ll just let you watch this clip. It’s sure to put a smile on your face. These young birds are practicing as they haven’t reached maturity. The female (on the right) looks like she’s putting in a bit more effort, wouldn’t you agree?
After mating the pair will stay together for several years or, in many cases, for the rest of their lives. But the pair isn’t always male-female. A few years ago, scientists discovered that 31 percent of the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) pairs on the Hawaiian island of Oahu are female-female.
This Laysan albatross chick is one month old. Over the next year or so, he will grow to look like this… (Photo from the Cornell University Bird Lab)
A handsome adult Laysan albatross. Photo taken on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Why is this? Each year an estimated 100,000 albatrosses drown by becoming ensnared in fishing line set by long-line trawlers. There is also the growing problem of plastic. (The Audubon Society cites a study that 90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic.) Of the 22 species of albatross, 15 are threatened with extinction. Legislation has been introduced to the US Congress making it possible for the US to join an international treaty to advance protection of these birds.
Have you seen an albatross in person? Have a great weekend, everyone!