Friday, November 25, 2016

Savage Love (“Midway Style”)

After a couple of months of relative quiet, the albatrosses started arriving in the middle of October. The first sighting, a lone black-footed albatross in a field behind the “Fuel Farm” spotted by Chugach employee Suriya Hemphumee on October was met with much excitement, not just by the geeky biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but also by other island residents. After going to check out the birds, I remember telling “Jack” (Phosri Kriengsak), one of the power plant operators, that the albatross were back and he replied with a big smile “Really???”. Most everyone I spoke to seemed to think the albatross were a little early this year.The first Laysan albatross arrived about a week later (typical, as black-footed albatross always constitute the vanguard); a single individual that appeared one sunny, breezy day near the old water tower. Slowly but steadily more birds arrived until eventually – over the course of a week or so – it seemed like there were birds nearly everywhere. 

Arrival of the albatross as illustrated by repeat photography in a field north of Charlie Barracks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (one photo taken each day during the period of November 3-22, 2016).
This being my first time experiencing “albatross welcome week” I was not sure what to expect but will admit that I was not prepared for what I would witness. Postcards of snuggling albatross couples with captions touting their long lifespan and monogamous lifestyle had led me astray. Imagine if your only knowledge of organized crime was a Broadway production of West Side Story prior to finding yourself in the middle of gang shootout in Compton?

The first albatrosses appeared lonely, tired, and somewhat disoriented. Given that many of these birds had been out in the ocean for months and had travelled thousands of miles to get here, perhaps, that is to be expected. It didn’t take them long, though, to recoup their energy. As more birds arrived, disputes over spacing and territory quickly arose. Albatross don’t require a lot of space on their breeding grounds but do have preferences as to where to build their nests and do try to maintain a little space from neighbors (according to a study by Earl Meseth conducted on midway in the early 1960s, nests are always separated by at least 32 inches). As it is males that arrive first, it is among them that disputes over nesting locations seem most common. These can range from, in their mildest form, two birds sitting low and thrusting their bills out towards one another while holding their ground, to full-on brawls that occur when a bird “trespasses” into an area where others have already settled into their territories. As tensions escalate, one bird often locks down on the bill of the other and shake it violently, leaving one or both bloodied. It is also common for the aggressor in one of these encounters to wrap its neck around another bird and attempt to wrestle it to the ground. Fights are accompanied by loud screams that you would think signal mortal wounding, though, it seems, they rarely lead to serious injury.

Squabbles erupt among Laysan albatross as they attempt to claim potential nest sites. 

If the bro’ fights weren’t bad enough there is the raping. Is the, perhaps, anthropomorphic term “raping” really the right word? I don’t know, but honestly, I can’t think of a reasonable alternative. Although authoritative sources state that the “male rarely copulates with female other than his mate"2 what one observes on the breeding grounds strongly suggests otherwise, unless there are a lot of single dudes out there. During the first few weeks, as females are returning to the atoll, they seem to be constantly harassed by males (you can tell the difference as males have larger bills relative to the size of their heads). When a female lands, it is instantly recognized by nearby males which begin chasing her and trying to climb on top of her. The female often senses danger and tries to escape with its wings held high but what often ensues are ridiculous pile-ups consisting of three or more males with a terrified female crushed underneath. Whether or not, given the anatomy of these birds the male attackers can actually affect insemination during these non-consensual encounters isn’t clear as males don’t have a penis but instead just an opening (a "cloaca" in technical jargon) very similar to that of the females. After watching albatross have sex several times it would seem to me that the female would have to cooperate for sperm to enter, however scientific studies that might shed light on this question, apparently, have yet to be conducted. Females typically try to defend themselves by biting the attacker but what often ends up saving them are the males themselves, as sexual assault devolves into a testosterone-fueled brawl among the aggressors giving the female the opportunity to escape.

A female Laysan albatross is forcibly mounted by two competing males.
As the sex-ratio on the atoll becomes more balanced things calm down a bit and more socially-acceptable (to humans, that is), oxytocin-inspired, pair-bond behaviors gradually supplant the testosterone frenzy. Once mates arrive, male birds spend more time cuddling with their long-departed lovers and less attacking their neighbors. Preening each other seems to be a very popular form of love amongst the paired birds with attention paid especially to the neck and head (makes sense since these are parts of the body that are not easily reached by an individual). Albatross also just have a way of assuming very cute postures. Consensual sex is also observed in all of its clumsy, web-footed seabird glory as males clamber atop willing females to get the essential business done. This is often followed by dancing and other courtship behaviors. During this early stage of the breeding season an amazingly rich collection of behaviors unfolds. In Meseth’s study of Laysan albatross he detailed at least 26 behavioral elements including the air snap, headshake and whine, head flick, rapid bill clapper, eh-eh bow, scapular action, sky moo, stare and whinny, bob-strut, bill touch, bow clapper, nest threat, bill thrust, charge, glare, victory cry, escape run, and mutual preen. Even though, after six months here at Midway, I have seen these things hundreds of times, I am still fascinated by them and in my reading about the history of Midway it seems that I am not unique in this regard. Beginning in 1904 when employees of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company came to Midway and continuing through the Navy years and into the present, watching the albatross has always been an important form of entertainment for island residents.

Albatross courtship and mating. Clockwise from upper left: A pair of Laysan albatross dance on the breeding grounds; mutual preening; a pair of black-footed albatross enjoy each other's company; Laysan albatross copulating (consensual).

Before you know it there are eggs! The first egg seen on the atoll this year was on November 9th which just happened to be my birthday. Quite the gift! Before laying an egg the female builds a nest, often with the help of her mate. Some of the nests seem fairly minimal while others are are much more substantial and well-constructed. Nests are built using just the bill and have a foundation of sand or soil sometimes lined with dried leaves or grass. Excavation of material surrounding the nest often results in their being a kind of moat around it. I have only seen one bird actually lay and egg but it seemed like an arduous and uncomfortable. Not surprising since they are quite large, averaging 11 x 7 cm (4.2 x 2.7 inches) in size and constitute nearly 10% of the females body mass!

Laysan albatross female with brand new egg.
As I write this post the albatrosses seem to be incredibly busy. Fights are few as most birds are either courting and mating or have already settled onto their nests and begun the marathon that is reproduction for these species. If all goes well, male and female, in nearly equal turns, will incubate the egg for just over 2 months and then care for and feed their chick for about five months before it is big enough to fly off on its own. For some birds things already have not gone well. Heavy rain fell on the atoll this week which resulted in the inundation of some nests and more storms are sure to come. The waves that overwashed the atoll during the tsunami of March 10, 2011 killed an estimated 110,000 albatross chicks (Laysan and black-footed combined). Albatross will stick tight to their nests with the most incredible tenacity but if the egg is lost they have no choice but to put off breeding until the next year as they lack sufficient reserves to lay a second egg. Knowing that many of the nests will not succeed can be a bit saddening, but the energy and enthusiasm that albatross possess imbue the atoll with a feeling of vitality and inspiration.


The title of this blog post was inspired by the refreshingly candid and honest newspaper column Savage Love by Dan Savage. If you have never read it, check it out!



  1. I LOVE the photopoint series! And I like Meseth's terms for their behavior - I think my favorite is "stare and whinny!" Hope the rains mellow out and no more nests get flooded...

  2. Your descriptions of many and varied interactions between albatross are so spot-on and honest about the "colony life" on Midway! Thanks for sharing, Rob!