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July 16, 2018

Return of Bird of the Week: Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross, Southern Ocean

Wandering Albatross, Southern Ocean

Measured by wingspan, it’s the largest bird in the world. An adult male can be 12 feet, wing tip to wing tip. This female was small, probably 10 to 10.5 feet as she flew across the path of our boat. Unlike some other species, Wandering Albatrosses don’t seem to follow ships. Perhaps they learned a lesson from that mariner the Samuel Coelridge wrote about. Watching this big girl fly by she seemed Cessna-sized. She was within binocular view for maybe 10 minutes; she never once flapped her wings.

Wandering Albatross breed every other year, and don’t nest until they are 11-15 years old. They lay a single egg. Only slightly less than a third of their chicks survive to fledge. Even for a species as long-lived as Wandering Albatross – and they can live as long as 50 years – that a remarkably low reproduction rate. Combined with the hazards of long-line fishing and plastic pollution – it looks like food to an albatross, and its clogs their guts and their kids’ guts – Wandering Albatross are highly vulnerable to extinction. About 28,000 pair remain. At the well-studied South Georgia Island breeding colony, populations are declining by about 4% per years.

The scientific name for Wandering Albatross is Diomedea exulans. The “exulans” is Latin for “wanderer.” A Wandering Albatross fitted with a radio transmitter was tracked circum-navigating the Southern Ocean three times in one year. That’s 75,000 miles in twelve months. “Wanderer” indeed.

As WC wrote in 2012, albatrosses are the living definition of the wild ocean. The planet will be a much poorer, sadder place if we allow these giant, beautiful birds to go extinct. As Coelridge eerily foresaw,

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

Superstition, perhaps, like the superstition that albatrosses bear up the souls of dead sailors to heaven. But if it helps the species survive, if superstition encourages us to take better care, WC will accept help from all quarters.

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