Birds – The Albatrosses

To those who “go down to the sea in ships” one of the marvels is the wonderful power of flight enjoyed by the Albatrosses. On tireless wing, hour after hour, day after day, they “wheel round and round, and forever round the ship — now far behind, now sweeping past in a long rapid survey like a perfect skater on an uneven field of ice. There is no effort; watch as closely as you will, you rarely or never see a stroke of the mighty pinion. The flight is generally near the water, often close to it. You lose sight of the bird as he disappears in the hollow between the waves, and catch him again as he rises over the crest; but how he rises and whence comes the propelling force is to the eye inexplicable ; he merely alters the angle at which the wings are inclined; usually they are parallel to the water and horizontal; but when he turns to ascend or makes a change in his direction, the wings then point at an angle, one to the sky, the other to the water.” — BULLER.

While many ingenious theories have been propounded to account for the amazing power which these birds possess of sailing in the air for perhaps an hour at a time without the slightest apparent motion of the expanded wings, we are still without a wholly satisfactory explanation. “The Albatross has,” says Mr. Lucas, “that type of wing which best fulfils the conditions necessary for an aeroplane, being long and narrow, so that while a full-grown Albatross may spread from ten to twelve feet from tip to tip, this wing is not more than nine inches wide. This spread of wing is gained by the elongation of the inner bones of the wing and by increasing the number of secondaries, there being about forty of these feathers in the wing of the Albatross.”

The Albatrosses, of which some sixteen or eighteen species are known, are mainly birds of the southern tropical or subtropical seas, although two species are found in the North Pacific as far north as Alaska, and two other species are occasionally found on the Pacific coast of the United States; on the Atlantic side it is rare indeed to find them as far north as Tampa Bay. They are invariably met with by ships that round Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, and many a time has their presence “aroused the tired sailor’s admiration by the power and endurance of their scarcely moving wings, which seem never to know or need a rest.” The Albatrosses are among the largest of the water birds in existence, at least of those enjoying the power of flight. The spread of wings, as already stated, may reach ten or twelve feet, yet the weight of the entire body of even the largest birds rarely exceeds sixteen or eighteen pounds. The food of the Albatrosses consists of fish, cuttlefish, jellyfish, offal, and scraps thrown overboard from passing ships. This latter habit of feeding frequently results in their extinction, for by baiting a hook attached to a long line with some tempting bit of meat they are easily caught and drawn on board. This practice has been so often resorted to that, coupled with the frequent destruction of the nests, certain species have been greatly reduced in numbers and seem on the verge of extermination.

At the nesting time the Albatrosses resort in great numbers to various isolated oceanic islands, where they build on the ground in open situations a mound-like nest of mud and grasses some eighteen inches or more high. In a slight depression in the top the single egg is laid. The egg is very large, even for the size of the bird, in the case of the Wandering Albatross being about five inches in length and over three inches in diameter. It is coarse in texture, of an elongated oval form, with the smaller end compressed and often enlarged at the tip; in color the eggs vary from dull white to pale yellow, usually profusely marked at the larger end with reddish brown specks and dots. The birds while incubating the egg sit very closely, allowing a near approach without making the least movement. On this point Kidder says: “They are dull birds, making but little attempt to defend their eggs beyond loudly clattering their bills. The sound thus produced is louder than would be expected, owing to the resonance of the considerable cavity included by the mandibles. It is very like the sound of a tin pan beaten with a stick. I knocked several off and secured their eggs before they recovered sufficiently to approach the nests. They climbed on to the empty nests, however, and sat as contentedly, to all appearances, as before. I believe they do not lay a second time; the whalers, who are very fond of the eggs, assert that they never find a second one in a nest that has been once robbed.”

Many curious stories have been told regarding the treatment of the young.Thus it is the popular belief among the whalers that after the young are hatched in January the old birds leave at once and do not return until the following October, the young birds feeding, in the meantime, on their own fat ! Against the idea of the young birds feeding at night it is urged that they cannot fly during this period. These statements are, of course, incredible, and it is probable that they are fed at night by the parents, who may be absent during the daytime.

Laysan Albatross. —Mr. Walter K. Fisher has recently given a very complete account of the Laysan Albatross (D. immutabilis), from which we select the description of a curious dance or “cake-walk” that is constantly being executed by the old birds. “At first two birds approach one another, bowing profoundly and stepping heavily. They swagger about each other, nodding and courtesying solemnly, then suddenly begin to fence a little, crossing bills and whetting them together, sometimes with a whistling sound, meantime pecking and dropping stiff little bows. All at once one lifts its closed wing and nibbles at the feathers beneath, or rarely, if in a hurry, quickly turns its head. The partner during this short performance assumes a statuesque pose, and either moves mechanically from side to side, or snaps its bill loudly a few times. Then the first bird bows once, and pointing its head and beak straight upward, rises on its toes, puffs out its breast, and utters a prolonged, nasal Ah-h-h-h, with a rapidly rising inflection. While this `song’ is being uttered, the companion loudly and rapidly snaps its bill. Often both birds raise their heads in air and either one or both favor the appreciative audience with the ridiculous and indescribable bovine groan. When they have finished they begin bowing to each other again, rapidly and alternately, and presently repeat the performance, the birds reversing their rôle in the game or not.”

Wandering Albatross and Relatives. —The Albatrosses were formerly included in a single genus, but later authorities mainly agree in separating them into three genera, of which Diomedea is the original and largest, and may be known by the upper division of the bill being broadest at the base. Of the ten recognized species in this genus the Wandering Albatross (D. exulans) is by far the commonest and best known, being widely spread over the southern oceans. The fully adult birds are white, with the back banded with narrow, transverse, undulating dark lines, while the wing-quills are black. In the young the general color is dusky, with the head whitish. The bill is yellowish horn-color, becoming orange at the base, and the feet and legs flesh-color. According to Ridgway the length is from forty-four to fifty-five inches, and the spread of wings from one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and thirty inches. Very similar to this species is the Royal Albatross (D. Regia) of the New Zealand seas, which differs mainly in the absence of the transverse dark lines on the upper back and of spots on the tail, and the White-winged Albatross (D. chiono ptera) of the southern Indian Ocean, which is almost pure white throughout. Of the two species inhabiting the North Pacific, the Short-tailed Albatross (D. Albatrus) is white, becoming straw-yellow on the head and neck, and has the bill and feet pale brownish, while the Black-footed Albatross (D. Nigripes) is a uniform dusky, with the bill purplish brown and the feet black; neither is more than thirty-seven inches in length. Of the remaining species we may only mention the Spectacled Albatross (D. Melanophrys), which is so called from the presence of a distinct grayish stripe on the sides of the head and about the eyes. It is a small species, being only about thirty inches long, and is found in the southern oceans, straying occasionally to the coast of California. A single fossil species has been described from the recent deposits of England.

The second genus (Thalassogeron), which is perhaps doubtfully distinct, is distinguished by the fact that the upper division of the bill is narrow, and of equal width from the middle of the culmen to the base. The six species are, with one exception, confined to the Southern Ocean, the exception being the Albatross (T. Eximius) of Gough Island in the South Atlantic. The only species casually reaching the Pacific coast of South America is the Yellow-nosed Albatross (T. Culminatus), a bird about thirty-six inches long, of a uniform dark brownish slate above, with the rump, upper tail-coverts, and lower parts white. The peculiar common name arises from the presence of a yellowish stripe along the edge of the lower mandible.

The Sooty Albatross (Phobetria Fuliginosa) is the sole representative of the remaining genus and is distinguished at once from all the others by the presence of a distinct longitudinal groove on the sides of the lower mandible, which extends the entire length of the lateral division, and by its wedge-shaped tail. In the adult the plumage of the neck, back, and lower parts is pale smoky gray, becoming deep sooty on the sides of the head, chin, and throat, while the bill is deep black with the grooves whitish and the feet pale reddish. Its home is in the southern seas, though coming occasionally as far north as the coast of Oregon.