How an Encounter with a Fledgling Albatross Changed My Perspective on Conservation

Y.M. Saegusa
Jun 10 · 7 min read

Human actions have consequences, some of which can result in the extinction of entire species

Image courtesy of the author

A few weeks ago, my family went on a hike in North Shore, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. An employee from the Hawaii Marine Animal Response (HMAR) waved my family down and asked us if we wanted to see something we probably never seen before. Under her escort, she took us to a location on the marked trail just outside of cordoned-off area and pointed to a well-camouflaged albatross.

Based on our interaction with the HMAR guide, we learned that the albatross was in the process of fledgling and was expected to take flight sometime in June or July. Once it begin its journey at sea, the bird will not make landfall for approximately five years, returning to land only to breed after it reaches sexual maturity.

Through those years, it will spend a majority of its time in the air when not on the surface of the ocean to hunt for food.

I became fascinated by this sea-going bird and did some research once I got home. Here are some things that I’ve learned.

In ancient mariner's tradition, the albatross is a sign of good fortune. To intentionally kill one will bring bad luck.

They spend the majority of their lives at sea. A single journey can be as long as 10,000 miles. The albatross only returns to land to mate and feed its chick.

A Wandering albatross — Source: Wikipedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Among bird species, they have the largest wingspan. The Laysan Albatross that I encountered will grow to a wingspan of about seven feet.

Other albatross species, such as the Wandering Albatross can grow to a wingspan of 11', making it the largest wingspread of all living birds.

Ironically, climate change has benefited the albatross. According to Documentary Tube, climate change has resulted in faster air currents, which have allowed these birds to travel further more efficiently, making it easier to access food at greater ranges than they would have otherwise been able to.

Their wings have adapted to gliding. As shown in the picture above, their wings are narrow to optimize gliding. (Imagine the long and narrow wings of a man made glider as opposed to the wide wings of a commercial airliner) When wind conditions are low, its difficult to generate sufficient levels of lift for a controlled descent, which may result in some hilarious landing failures as shown below:

Video source: Cornell Lab Ornithology and the New Zealand Department of Conservation
Oldest known bird to be alive, Laysan Albatross named “Wisdom” — Image Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

They are long-lived birds. A Laysan Albatross named “Wisdom” which was banded on December 10, 1956 lives to this date and is continuing to produce offsprings.

According to the United States Geological Survey, there are many other recorded cases of albatross living to fifty years.

Albatross mate for life, but that doesn't mean they spend their life together. Though they meet once a year to mate, they may spend time at sea separately. They will reunite once a year in the same general location and will produce one offspring. Both males and females share equally in the tasks required to raise their chick. One will always remain on the egg or with the chick while the other hunts to food. The albatross are known for their fidelity. They will find a new mate only if the other perishes. They may end up waiting years for their mate to show up. They also have a unique mating ritual:

Video courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

They are also surface nesters, which leads us to the dilemma.

While reading about all the cool things about this magnificent bird, I also came across various articles that were damning. It led me down a rabbit hole of academic, government, and conservation reporting on the impact of invasive species on indigenous species and the biosphere.

I recalled that during our hike, my daughters kept finding mongoose traps located throughout the area. Though I knew that mongooses are an invasive species in Hawaii that needed to be eradicated humanely, I wasn’t fully aware of the exact toll the introduction of mongoose had on Hawaii.

Though the barricade would keep most law-abiding people from entering protected habitats, mongoose will find a way around barricades. The traps were laid by humans to solve human-created problems. The traps were spotted all over the area surrounding the albatross sanctuary.

The mongoose will not only eat the eggs, they may even attack the chicks.

So how did we arrive at the situation that we find ourselves in at this moment?

Prior to tourism, Hawaii was heavily reliant on agriculture as a source of revenue. Among the crops that were exported were sugar canes. Like all crops, sugar canes attract pests and rodents, such as rats. Farmers were looking for cost-effective solutions to protect their crops in order to improve yield and profit. Mongoose was known to hunt and consume rodents while leaving sugar canes alone. Farmers believed they found a viable solution.

A mongoose in Hawaii — WikiCommons CC BY 2.0

In 1872, halfway around the world in the Caribbean, sugar plantation operators released nine Indian mongooses (Herpestus javanicus) to their fields in an effort to control the rodent population. It was reported to be success. Farmers in the Caribbeans claimed rodents successfully reduced the population of rodents, resulting in increasing profit.

Based on this finding, plantation owners in Hilo, Hawaii introduced seventy-two mongoose from Jamaica in 1883. Additional batches were imported from India. Maui and Oahu followed suit. Sugar plantations acted to protect their bottom line without considering the consequences of their actions.

As an isolated chain of islands and atolls, the ecological balance of Hawaii is delicate. The introduction of any species may irreversibly damage the environment. Since mongooses are opportunistic and omnivorous hunters, they preyed on insects, turtles, and ground-nesting birds, which included the Laysan Albatross. They also went after livestock such as chickens and their eggs.

Farmers in Hawaii also failed to consider the fact that rats are nocturnal creatures, while mongoose is active during daylight hours. The likelihood of a mongoose and rat coming across each other on a farm was minuscule compared to the likelihood of mongoose hunting other native species that are active during the day. Rats will also take defensive measures to ensure contact with any predators are minimized, be it day or night. The plan was doomed to fail.

Ground nesting birds have gone extinct in Jamaica due to the introduction of mongoose. The mongoose is also responsible for the decimation of native skinks in Jamaica, with half of the 39 known native species being declared extinct due to predation. The Anguilla Bank skink shown below is one such example of a skink species that is now listed as endangered due to the introduction of the invasive species to the Caribbean.

Anguilla Bank skink (Spondylurus powelli) / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

In Hawaii, the mongoose threatens not only the albatross, but other ground-nesting birds such as the Hawaiian crow (‘alalā), petrels (ʻuʻau), and the Hawaiian goose (nēnē). Sea turtles are also at risk due to predation.

According to estimates by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the nēnē population was about 25,000 at the time of western contact in 1778. By the 1950s, the nēnē population plummeted to the near extinction of only 30 birds, attributed primarily due to predation by the mongoose and other non-native rodents introduced after western contact.

Hawaiian crow image — Wikipedia, Public Domain / Hawaiian petrels image — Wikipedia, Public Domain / Hawaiian goose image — Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Luckily, conservation and breeding efforts were successful since nēnēs breed well in captivity. The nēnē were re-introduced to the wild beginning in the 1960s, with roughly 2,000 birds statewide by 2010. We were so close to losing the nēnē forever due to the profit-motivated arrogance of mankind. Let's not make the same mistake again.

In the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a mariner kills an albatross with a crossbow while at sea.

As punishment for his crime, the crew forces the mariner to wear the corpse of the albatross around his neck. But it wasn’t enough, supernatural forces result in the ship drifting at sea with no wind to power their vessel. Crew members slowly succumb to death due to exposure, all of which the mariner is forced to witness.

It was only when the mariner appreciates the beauty of nature and of God’s creation that the corpse of the albatross falls into the ocean, freeing the mariner, and lifting the curse. The mariner atoned for his sins by realizing the error of his ways.

To wear an albatross around the neck is an idiom meant to describe a burden or a problem that cannot be escaped. We must confront the errors of our way and find a balance between mankind’s material needs for living without destroying nature in the process of obtaining it.

Though science has advanced to the point that controlled introduction of non-native species has proven to be effective, we should limit human intervention in nature to begin with. Our focus should be on establishing a means to coexist with nature, rather than trying to control it. If human intervention becomes necessary, we’ve screwed something up.

It was due to mankind’s profit-motivated arrogance that has resulted in the destruction of natural habitats throughout the world. As long as we continue to place profit over coexistence with nature, we will continue to be cursed by having to bear the burden of our arrogance.

Y.M. Saegusa

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