Perhaps no bird with the exception of domestic species is as recognized in an everyday context as is the albatross. That, even though the vast majority of us never will actually see a live specimen.
The more than 20 species of albatross have woven themselves into our literature and consciousness over hundreds of years through stories, one well-known poem, and, more recently, our recognition of the need for conservation.
Albatross are magnificent physical creatures, among our largest birds, one of them with the longest wing-span among birds, certain species capable of foraging flights covering thousands of miles at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.
They have life spans and behaviors that in many ways echo ours. Or, we echo theirs, since albatross have been around for millions of years longer than we have. Albatross mate for life, return to natal nest sites, live for decades, often delay first breeding for as many 20 years, but then can breed into their 60s. They raise one chick every two years, and are doting parents.
All of this and more is covered in the wonderful book “Albatross” by Graham Barwell. It is one of an extraordinary series of animal books published by Reaction Books of London.
Physically, this is a small book. 7.5 by 5.25 inches. Printed on quality paper stock, however, it has the heft of a larger volume. It feels substantial in the hand. It is extensively illustrated, with text notes, a bibliography, website addresses, and index.
I like books. I am partial to books well made, quality effort in assembly and choice of materials as well as content. “Albatross” qualifies in every way.
There are 65 volumes in this animal series, subjects ranging from chickens to cats, from lobsters to lions. If this book is an indication of quality, I would like to have them all.
The author grew up in New Zealand, encountering his first albatross there. He was fortunate to live in a part of the world — the southern hemisphere — where most albatross species live.
The author writes, “Where once it was an almost mythical bird, familiar largely to those who visited the ocean it frequented, now it has an iconic state, representing the majesty of the natural world, and signaling in its diminishing numbers the consequences of human treatment of the open seas.”
Human treatment of the birds themselves hasn’t been so hot either. They have been slaughtered for food and feathers. Indigenous people of southern oceans killed this with care, the birds seen as a renewal resource. When Europeans arrived, no consideration of tomorrow was given. “Depredation for profit” is how Barwell describes it,m “unrestrained exploitation.”
Conditions are somewhat better now. Books, nature programs on television, and eco-tourism have helped focus our attention. There have been sad newspaper stories about albatross that fed their young bits of plastic trash floating in the oceans, mistaken for food and carried back to the nest for young birds.
Then there were the two females nesting on islands in the Pacific Ocean, one at age 61, the other 62 That is the kind of good-news story that closes television news programs.
It helps, too, Barwell says, that the birds are large and long-lived. We show more concern for such animals, he says.
In my birding travels I have seen the two species of albatross found in northern Pacific waters, Black-footed and Laysan. Both were highlights for me and many other birders taking pelagic birding trips out of Monterey, Cal.
These two species are among the smaller of the family. Sitting on the water, beside the boat — and they did this — size was not impressive, not for albatross anyway. But in the air, gliding and sliding through the air, just above the waves, on wings that never flapped, those albatross lived up to all expectations. The were highlights indeed.
These were birds with six-foot wingspreads. The largest have wings that extend more than 10 feet.
The poem I mentioned is by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge — “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It’s a classic, the sad tale of an albatross, its species laden with superstition, shot by that mariner, and the aftermath of the death.