“…a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!”
from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner“
As described in this famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sailors have long considered the albatross to be a good omen. Early ocean explorers believed that sighting a bird meant land was nearby. There undoubtedly were many disappointed, land-hungry sailors though, because the albatross is a pelagic, or open-ocean, species that may not set foot on land for many years at a time. Albatross have been described as “nomads of the oceans”.
Description and Range
Short-tailed albatross are very large, alabaster birds with egg-yolk-yellow crowns, pink bills, and yellow feet. Their wingspan can reach to 13 feet (three meters) and they may weigh as much as 25 pounds (11 kilograms). One would hardly think that the small, chocolate brown, baby short-tailed albatross would grow up to look so different.
Historically, the short-tailed albatross bred on a number of Japanese islands, and its range extended to most of the north Pacific Ocean. In the 19th century, the short-tailed albatross was common in the north Pacific. However, its numbers were reduced from more than a million birds to as few as 40 or 50 in 1940.
Since that time, a slow recovery has brought the number of short-tailed albatross to more than 200. All of the remaining birds breed on just one small island in Japan. The remote island, Toroshima, is dominated by an active volcano, and the birds occupy a hiding place that is difficult for humans to access.
Albatross live from forty to sixty years. They can stay out at sea for as long as five years before returning to the same island on which they were born. They have elaborate courtship dances, and once mated they tend to remain faithful to their mate. In adulthood they rendezvous each year with their partner at the same nest site. Nesting time is the only time they spend on land, and each year the pair stays just long enough to hatch and raise a single chick.
On land, albatross are very awkward and often have difficulty taking off and landing. Japanese call them “Ahodori”, which means “fool bird”, because they were known to remain at their nest sites as humans walked through their breeding grounds, killing bird after bird.
Although albatross are so awkward on land, they are graceful and impressive in flight. An albatross in flight can be so perfectly attuned to wind conditions that it may not flap its wings for hours, or even for days, as it can sleep while flying. It takes advantage of the air currents just above the ocean’s waves to soar in perpetual graceful motion.
Albatross are so beautiful in the air that superstitious sailors believed they were the reincarnated spirits of dead sailors who were searching the oceans for their lost friends.
Causes of Endangerment
Overexploitation by humans is the main cause of endangerment of the short-tailed albatross. Albatross of all kinds were once highly sought after by humans.
Indigenous people hunted them for food on the north coast of North America, and later the birds were easy prey for hungry explorers. Sailors used almost every part of the albatross’ body: meat, oil, bones, feathers, and feet.
Commercial ventures sought the beautiful long, white wing and tail feathers to make pen plumes and the downy body feathers to stuff feather beds. In one seventeen-year period, five million albatross were killed to stuff mattresses and quilts for European markets.
Introduced species are a big problem for albatross on Toroshima Island, their last nesting refuge. Albatross chicks and eggs are easy prey cats and rats who pluck them from their ground nests.
Potential Volcanic Eruption
People no longer live on Toroshima because it is an active volcano. In 1902, an eruption killed all 125 of the island’s human occupants. Now the world’s only short-tailed albatross colony nests on the ashen slopes where the grass has become reestablished. If the volcano should erupt again during breeding season, the majority of the population could be wiped out. Only juveniles at sea would survive.
Formerly, when there were short-tailed albatross colonies in several places, such a natural event would not have threatened the species. Reduction of the short-tailed albatross range due to overexploitation by humans has left them vulnerable to extinction by natural factors.
Ban on Feather Collection
A ban on the collection of short-tailed albatross feathers was instituted in 1906, but it was not very effective. Illegal feather collection continued until the 1930’s, when the species was no longer economically significant because its numbers had been reduced so drastically. In 1949, the species was mistakenly declared extinct, but since then the population has slowly but steadily increased to more than 200 birds.
An important step for the short-tailed albatross conservation is protecting its only island refuge from sulphur mining and other human uses. In the late 1960’s, the Japanese government declared the entire island of Toroshima a Special Natural Monument.
Eliminate Exotic Species
The Japanese government currently has a program to eradicate the feral cats and Norwegian rats that were introduced to the island by its former human residents.
Questions for Thought
The ban on collection of short-tailed albatross feathers did not work until the species was no longer commercially viable. What factors can prevent a ban like this from being effective? How can a ban be made more effective?
The volcano that killed all the people on Toroshima could kill all the birds in the short-tailed albatross colony if it erupts during the nesting season. What action can the Japanese government take to prevent an eruption on Toroshima from devastating the short-tailed albatross population?
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.