Thursday, June 16, 2016

Not Very Gooney at All Actually

An appreciation for the Laysan Albatross

The indigenous people of Hawaii call this bird “Moli”. To scientists it’s Phoebastria immutabilis. But at some point in recent history someone called an albatross a “gooney bird” and the name has stuck. It’s not a very kind name, implying foolish, silly, or awkwardNames matter (just ask anyone belonging to what might be considered a “minority group”) and over time I think the reputation of the Laysan Albatross has suffered as people – English speakers at least – have tended to focus on its less elegant aspects while downplaying the truly astonishing characteristics that define this magnificent seabird species. Here I hope is to disabuse you of the notion that these birds are “gooney” at all and tell you why I think they deserve your respect if not awe.

Laysan Albatross are often called "Gooneybirds" and characterized as being silly or clumsy.

Laysan albatross is one of 21 species of albatrosses and range across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Mexico. Despite this large range they nest on just a few isolated islands. Here on Midway Atoll, the bird is extremely abundant with about 450,000 breeding pairs documented at last count, comprising approximately 75% of the global population.


Laysan albatross nest on just a few remote islands but forage across a very wide swath of the Pacific Ocean extending from Japan to California and from the equator to the Aleutian Islands.

Albatrosses have been around for millions of years and have evolved to do one thing extremely well, to survive by harvesting resources that are spread across thousands of miles of open ocean.  Like all birds though, reproduction requires dry land. And in the case of albatrosses they require places without mammalian or reptilian predators because they nest on the ground and their chicks are very tasty (we know this from the records of early sea voyages) and extremely vulnerable to hungry mouths. Well it turns out that land free of predators is a pretty scarce commodity. Every continent as well as the islands that lie offshore team with primates (us included), dogs, cats, weasels, snakes, and the like. So albatrosses have had to resort to raising their young on remote islands where no land predator has ever made landfall. For Laysan Albatross these have included the Hawaiian islands, and a few islands off the coast of Mexico and Japan. One the Polynesians settled the main Hawaiian islands, the albatrosses were dispatched quickly.

It turns out though, by accident of geologic history, that the only suitable islands for nesting happened to be located in parts of the ocean that weren’t especially rich when it comes to food. So during the breeding season (which lasts for months) the Laysan Albatross must travel far to find the squid, fish eggs, crustaceans, and carrion it needs to survive. To manage this it evolved extraordinary flying abilities. Albatrosses, have very long wings that "lock" into place and utilize a technique called Dynamic Soaring which exploits wind gradients and allows them to fly great distances using very little energy. An albatross can spend months on end in nearly continuous flight as it pursues food over many thousands of miles of open ocean.

Masters of the air!  A typical Laysan Albatross flies over a million miles during its lifetime utilizing a technique called "dynamic soaring".
These abilities come at some cost to the bird when it comes time to land.  It's not uncommon for an albatross to land hard, sometimes even flipping over, if the winds shift suddenly during its approach. Takeoffs can be tricky too as an albatross cannot generate much lift by simply flapping its wings and has to get a running start into the wind to resume flight.  But before you start laughing at a Laysan albatross after suffers a crash landing, think about the fact that the bird may have just returned from several weeks or months at sea surviving gale force winds, rain, and snow.

Laysan Albatross are very long-lived birds that spend up to their first 9 years learning how to make their way in the world before settling on a mate and attempting to raise its first chick. They are monogamous and put a great deal of effort into finding the “right one” which entails a fairly elaborate courtship ritual involving of dancing, bill clapping, braying, screaming and other interesting behaviors. People watching young albatross in the heat of passion often find it “gooney” but ask yourself this: if an alien being were to evaluate you solely on your behavior in the bedroom, how do you think you'd come across?

Laysan Albatross engage in extensive courtship rituals and mate for life.

Once a Laysan Albatross finds the love of its life the pair takes on the monumental task of raising a chick. After the egg is laid both female and male share the task of incubation which lasts about two months. A parent may sit on the nest for two weeks straight waiting for relief from its mate all the while not eating or drinking. After hatching comes the daunting task of feeding the ravenous chick. Again the responsibility is shared by both parents and each undertakes epic journeys far into the ocean to gather enough food to provision the fast growing nestling. A study of Laysan Albatross using global positioning systems and satellite transmitters discovered that one female albatross spent 29 days at sea travelling over 7,500 miles on a single foraging excursion. And they don’t do this once but many times across their long lives. The longest living wild bird known is a 65 year old Laysan Albatross female living on Midway Atoll. This year "Wisdom" as she has been named, nested perhaps for the 30th time (albatrosses lay just one egg and typically do not breed every year) and is currently raising a healthy chick. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of miles that she has traveled and the things she has seen across the decades. The dedication that albatrosses show for their families is impressive and inspiring. The word “gooney” just doesn’t seem a good fit.

Dedicated parents. Both male and female Laysan Albatross travel tens of thousands of miles to find food for their offspring. Partially digested food and oils are regurgitated into the chicks bill.

In all fairness, I think that most people who call albatrosses “gooneybirds” do so with no disrespect. In fact, when I arrived here on Midway I used the term a few times thinking it kind of cute. But I also believe it's possible that this epithet has at times made it easier for people to do things that caused serious harm to Laysan Albatrosses. While describing the myriad ways that albatrosses have suffered at the hands of humans is a topic too large to tackle here (look forward to that in a later post) suffice it to say that when Midway and other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were being developed for military use, albatrosses were inconvenient and many were killed to make way for the roads, building, and aviation facilities that were constructed. Maybe by calling them “gooneybirds” it was a little easier to ignore the suffering we caused them.

Maybe now though it’s time for a more honest reckoning. If, indeed, Laysan Albatross are “gooney” at all it’s only when they are on land. And since research shows they spend about 95% of their lives at sea where they are magnificent, graceful creatures then that would mean they are “gooney” at most about 5% of the time. Not very gooney at all actually!

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