The largest albatrosses have wingspans that can exceed 9.8 feet (3 meters). Adults have black backs and white underwings. Their hooked bills are 5.5 to 7.5 inches (14 to 19 centimeters) with a pinkish hue in adults that are raising chicks.
Northern Pacific albatrosses have wingspans of 6.2 to 7.9 feet (1.9 to 2.4 meters). Although all four species have short, black tails, their bodies vary in coloration. One of the smaller birds, the Laysan albatross, has white feathers on its body and dark upper wings while the black-footed albatross is mostly dark brown except for a white patch on its hind end. The eleven mollymawk species vary greatly in coloration.
The two sooty albatrosses have a wing span ranging from 6 to 7.15 feet (1.8 to 2.2 meters). They have the most pointed tails of the family and have mainly dark bills, feathers, and legs.
Albatrosses are found in the northern Pacific Ocean, Galápagos Islands to the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. They are also found in the Southern Hemisphere on coastal waters.
An albatross spends more than 70 percent of its life on the ocean, where it searches for food, rests, and migrates, moves from one part of the world to another. Albatrosses require wind to help them get off the ground, so windswept islands are chosen for breeding sites. Here they build their nests and raise their young for the first months of life. Certain species prefer small, rocky islands on which to build their nests while others choose grassy slopes or plains so that there can be more distance between nesting sites.
Squid is the favorite food of the albatross. Because many squid glow in the dark, albatross often feed at night. They also eat the carcasses of seals, penguins, whales, and other marine life. In addition to fish, albatrosses consume crabs, krill, seaweed, and small seabirds. Most food is found at the water’s surface, though albatrosses have been known to dive and swim underwater for short distances (up to 16 feet [5 meters]) while foraging for food.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Though quiet while at sea, albatrosses are quite noisy at breeding colonies, where they communicate by wailing, crying, and clattering their bills. There is a definite courtship, rituals associated with mating, among the albatross, ranging from dances and wing displays to “calling” to one another.
Though fighting is not a regular occurrence, the albatross will defend its nest site. Usually a threat display or charging will be enough of a warning, but the hooked bill is useful in damaging eyes and bills if necessary. If approached, chicks and parents will regurgitate, bring up from the stomach, stomach oil and spew it at the intruder, covering him in a waxy substance that can harm feathers. The albatross grooms itself often, and parents are quite attentive to the cleaning of the chicks.
After finding suitable land, the albatross usually builds a bowlshaped nest and deposits a single egg into it. Albatrosses are monogamous, having one mate, and lay one egg each year. Incubation, the time it takes to warm the egg sufficiently for hatching to begin, lasts anywhere from sixty-five to eighty-five days. Parents take turns sitting on the egg, and both will play a role in raising the chick. Each turn lasts from one to twenty-nine days. Hatching occurs over a period of two to five days. Chicks remain with a parent at all times for the first three months and will fledge, take its first flight, between 120 and 180 days for smaller species to 220 and 303 days for the larger family members.
Albatrosses do not begin breeding until they are between the ages of five and fifteen years. Chicks have a high survival rate because the breeding site has very few land predators. Annual mortality, death, rates for adults range from 3 to 9 percent. The oldest known albatross was still breeding at more than sixty-two years old.
ALBATROSSES AND PEOPLE
Albatrosses were revered by some seafarers as a good luck sign. Others believed that to see an albatross at sea was warning of an oncoming storm. Fishermen depend on the albatross to show them where large populations of fish are located, and the harvesting of chicks (legally and illegally) goes on today. They are hunted for sport as well as food and scientific specimens.
There are not enough data to determine the rate of increase or decline for most species, but albatrosses are not in danger of extinction. Changes in global climate are responsible for the decrease in some species, such as the northern royal albatross. Changing sea temperatures also negatively affect food distribution and availability.