Ocean Of Birds


Albatrosses are birds found in South Atlantic. They are called albatross if not many and albatrosses if more than few, in a sense more than one or two. They are widely known for their stout bodies with long necks, as many sailors regard them as beautiful birds.  The name is an English sailor’s corruption of the Portuguese ‘Alcatraz’ for pelican, a bird which early explorers would have known from the Mediterranean. In practical terms, the fourteen species are crudely divided into ‘great albatrosses’, the wandering and royal and lastly the small albatrosses, collectively known to seafarers as mollymawks from the Dutch ‘mal; foolish and ‘mok’ gull. Another term for them is ‘gooney’, from the English dialect word for simpleton. These pejorative and richly undeserved epithets were as a result partly of seeing albatrosses ashore, out of their element, appearing clumsy and partly because of their endearing but ill- advised innocence in standing quietly while being bludgeoned by a club and picked up for the pit.


Albatrosses have stout bodies with large heads on long necks, short tails mostly and strictly long and narrow wings (to nearly 12ft in the wanderer). They have short- leg, places well back but the most eye-catching feature is the massive hooked bill, covered with a number of horny plates. Great albatrosses are mainly white, the twelve smaller ones have variable quantities of black on the back as well as on the wings. Most are inhabitants of the southern oceans, mainly between 30 degrees and 60 degrees south. But one is based on the equatorial Galapagos islands, ranging the Humboldt area. Three are confined to the north pacific, effectively isolated from their southern cousins by the windless region of the doldrums.

albatross looked up close

Albatrosses spend most of their lives inn flight, gliding the waves and circling the major wind systems.  They are highly accomplished dynamic soarers, seemingly motionless yet totally in control but they rely on a constant supply of wind which as such are highly inefficient to flapping flight. In the occasional calm ocean, they are forced to sit out the surface and wait. Their food is mainly squid, taken when they settle on the water, when they float high with plenty of freeboard, wings usually raised to keep them dry. They will also examine floating weed in the hope of finding fish eggs and will follow ships they feel like for a ride or rather a galley waste.

They are slow to mature, mollymawks breeding in their sixth or seventh year, great albatrosses in their ninth. Diving evidence of their southern origins, even the North Pacific species breed at the time of the southern summer, October- April. they all breed colonially, on remote oceanic islands. Mating for life, they court with dances which may seem somewhat ungainly to us, bowing and scraping, bill rubbing and wing stretching. The nest is a scrape on the ground or a mud- mound lined with a few feathers or grasses. The single chick is fed by regurgitation of stomach oil. The process is a long drawn out, from egg laying to fledging takes nearly a year in the case of the great albatrosses, as a consequence they breed only in alternate years. But all being well, they may live to be fifty years of age and maybe more.

albatrosses viewing the ocean.
Albatross and the ocean.

In the past they were much persecuted both for tier meat and their plumage. Taken in significant numbers on hooks and lines by sailors who made pouches out of their skins and pipe stems dot their bones, they suffered most severely in the latter part of the nineteenth century when the Japanese plume- hunters nearly exterminated the North Pacific populations. The feathers were processed and sold as ‘swan’s down’ for mattresses. Under protection, they have greatly increased and what the future hold might be appealing.




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