Have you ever heard the saying, “there’s an albatross around your neck”? It’s a phrase that comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s a long poem (~77 pages, would take the average reader ~28 minutes to read). But the TL:DR version is that a sailor killed an albatross that was following his ship. This was a big no-no, since albatrosses were considered to be good luck to sailors. The rest of the crew eventually blames the sailor for their subsequent misfortunes before making him wear the dead albatross around his neck.
Today, we might say that something is “an albatross around my neck” if it’s a heavy burden that prevents our success. Great metaphor, since albatrosses are pretty big and it would be distracting to have a dead one as a necklace. But I got to thinking: is this metaphor fair to the albatross???
I wanted to know more about the birds, and decided to focus on the biggest species: the wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans. Because if we’re going to have an albatross around our necks, let’s learn about the biggest ones.
- Big birds
- I knew albatrosses were big, but I didn’t realize how big. Wandering albatrosses are one of the largest birds in the world. They have a wingspan up to 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) across. And they can weight up to 28 pounds. So think Thanksgiving turkey size, but with much longer wings.
- They fly a lot
- Wandering albatrosses can fly continuously and with little effort. They can go, on average, 950 km per day at a speed of 40 km per hour. And they can do that for days or weeks. In fact, wandering albatrosses are one of the most far-ranging birds. One bird travelled 6000 km in 12 days. Some individuals have been reported circumnavigating the Southern Ocean three times, flying more than 75,000 miles in a single year.
- How can they fly so much?
- Wandering albatrosses have multiple adaptations to fly so much and for so long. One of these adaptations is anatomical: they have an “elbow-lock” system in their wings. Basically, a tendon sheet keeps their wing locked out, so they can keep their wings extended with little effort and glide for long periods of time. They also behaviorally use the wind to their advantage, just soaring along the wind with little flapping required. One study found that when wandering albatrosses were cruising on a tail wind or side wind, they were able to reach high speeds with a heart rate that was just a tiny bit higher than birds resting on land. This reliance on the wind may also be why wandering albatrosses are restricted to the Southern Ocean – it’s much windier there.
- They only land for nesting and eating
- Because they have such long wings and don’t flap much while flying, they really don’t have the muscles needed to lift off from the ground quickly. So, they just never really land. When they do land, wandering albatrosses try to do it in places where they can easily get back in the air. For instance, they prefer to nest on cliffs so they can just jump off to get back in the air easily. When they land on the ocean to feed, they need to get air under their wings either by wind (if it’s a windy day) or running (when there’s no wind). Sometimes they eat so much that they can’t fly for a bit. Honestly, mood.
- Top of the food chain
- Albatrosses in general are at the top of the food chain, eating various fish and cephalopods (i.e., squids and octopus). They have really no predators in adulthood. They’re so big and spend almost all their time at sea flying. It’s a different story for the young. Albatross eggs and chicks are at risk of being eaten by a range of predators, including skuas, sheathbills, domestic cats, and introduced pigs, goats, rats, and mice. But, if they make it to adulthood, a wandering albatross can live to be more than 50 years old.
- Salt glands!
- Wandering albatrosses aren’t by any means the only birds to have salt glands in their nasal passage. I just wanted to point this out because I find the adaptations animals have so cool. These salt glands help albatrosses get rid of the extra salt they have in their body from ingesting ocean water. They will excrete a salty solution from their nose, getting rid of excess salt and maybe staining their neck feathers in the process. Health AND fashion!
- Monogamous (mostly)
- Wandering albatrosses are monogamous. I will clarify that statement by saying they are SOCIALLY monogamous, not genetically monogamous. Basically, wandering albatrosses will mate for life. A male and a female will get together year after year to build a nest and raise a chick. BUT, even though they have this pair bond, the pair isn’t always faithful. Males and females will mate outside of their bond. Studies suggest that between 6% and 24% of nests at wandering albatross colonies have eggs that the father is not related to. AKA, someone “cheated.” (This is why it’s important to distinguish between social and genetic monogamy. Many species are socially monogamous, where they have a bond but will mate outside of that bond. Few are genetically monogamous, never mating outside of their partner).
- Egg time
- Wandering albatrosses usually reuse old nests, but they will sometimes make new ones. They breed usually around December (summertime in the Southern hemisphere) and will lay a single egg in a nest of grass, twigs, and soil. It takes about 78 days for the egg to hatch. Once it does, the parents take care of the chick for 8 months (one of the longest chick rearing periods of any bird). Because we’re talking basically a whole year of taking care of a nest / chick, wandering albatrosses usually won’t nest two years in a row. They instead take a sabbatical flying around the ocean after their chick as fledged and left the nest, and they won’t nest again until another year has gone by.
I’m just really impressed with these birds. It’s so cool how many adaptations they have to let them fly such long distances and deal with living on the ocean. They have an otherworldly quality with their endless circling and gliding. No wonder ancient mariners thought albatrosses carried the souls of lost sailors.
Oh, and I have decided that albatrosses deserve more respect than just being a metaphor for a burden.
For those who are interested, New Hope Audubon has a good article on different bird types and wing-loading for flight.