October Birds of the Month: Albert, the Black-browed Albatross and Wisdom, the Laysan Albatross

Photo: Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, Madalyn Riley

By Elise Brosnan

“Water, water every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most quoted (and misquoted) poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” tells the story of a sailor who shoots a friendly albatross, cursing himself and his crew. As punishment, he is forced to wear the bird around its neck, making the albatross a symbol of his burden and regret. Good omens in life and bad omens in death, albatrosses have become symbols of both good and bad luck. Fittingly, while some real albatrosses have been fortunate, others have had tough luck.

Albatrosses have the world’s largest wingspans, maxing out at nearly 11 feet, with the record exceeding 12 feet. They can glide for hours on their massive wings, relying on wind currents to travel where they need to go. However, albatrosses are not so good at flapping. Found in the South Atlantic, South Pacific, and North Pacific, albatrosses stay away from the tropics, and for good reason. The area of ocean around the equator is what scientists call the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and what sailors call the doldrums, a place where hot air rises straight upwards, and transverse breezes are few and far between.

Albatrosses are so dependent on temperate sea breezes that if they find themselves on the wrong side of the ITCZ, they may not be able to cross back. One particularly unlucky Black-browed Albatross, Albert, has been trapped in the North Atlantic Ocean since a freak storm carried him north in 1967. Originally a native of Argentina, Albert spent 40 lonely years returning to a Northern Gannet breeding colony in Scotland, looking for love, but finding only Northern Gannets. While albatrosses do not belong in the North Atlantic, strandings may not be all that uncommon. On the tiny Faroe Islands between Iceland and Norway, the word for albatross is “gannet king,” describing lost albatrosses’ habit of seeking gannets for company.

Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, Madalyn Riley

Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, Madalyn Riley

Other albatrosses are more fortunate. With an expected lifespan of 70 years, they are some of the longest-lived birds. The record holder is Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross who was first banded in 1956. Wisdom nests on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. In 2011, an earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami on the island that killed over 100,000 nesting birds. Fortunately, Wisdom survived, and has since thrived. Last year, at the approximate age of at least 68, she hatched another chick, bringing her total number of offspring to nearly 40.

Albatrosses are a lot like people: some are lucky, and some are seriously unlucky. If you would like to learn about how you can give all kinds of albatrosses some extra help, follow the link here: help albatrosses