When I was in hospital, I listened to a few radio programmes including some about sea birds and sea creatures. One of the shows, Natural Histories, had an episode about the albatross and I realised I didn’t know anything about them. I knew about the poem and I have vague recollections of playing a piece of music about an albatross when I was about 9 or 10 but that was it.
Just in case you too are ignorant of the albatross, I have decided to dedicate a post to them. Following which I will return to the cliffs of England and take a look at some of the species I am more familiar with.
There are a number of types of albatross but they are all fantastic flyers. They use a technique called dynamic soaring which makes them very efficient in the air. They use more energy to take off and land that they do to travel in the skies. Their huge wings mean they can soar for days without flapping and glide for several hundred miles. Masters of the air, these birds are rarely seen on land, coming down only to breed.
Magnificent, graceful and beautiful, they dwarf all other sea birds. As huge, white, winged beings which can fly through storms with grace, they are, unsurprisingly, seen as angelic and heavenly.
The largest albatross, the wandering albatross, has a wing span of 3.5m and inspires awe and spiritual response. Despite this, Coleridge portrayed it as a bird of ill omen in his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
These wanderers are long lived and they are survivors, battling storms and rough skies, putting an ominous slant on the idea of carrying an albatross around ones neck… A burden which cannot be shaken.. Despite this, they are, as a species, struggling to survive…
We have used their feathers as signs of rank, in ceremonial dress and to endow boats with their dominion of the seas. Their bones have allowed us to create beautiful music through flutes and to mark our own bodies with tattoos. And yet, we also eat this magnificent creature, this celestial air god. We let them suffer the consequences of our greed as they die from injury caused by industrial fishing. They pay the price of our exploitation of the ocean.
Because albatrosses live in remote areas and spend so much of their lives in the air, it’s hard to know how many there actually are but a project has been set up to utilise high powered satellite images to count them. At the time of the radio programme on the subject, they were having to be manually counted and this isn’t likely to be a possibility for other species, but the great size of these birds allows us to get a close look without disturbing them.
Despite the lack of numbers on the birds, scientists have noted a marked decline in numbers since the 1980s and all 22 species are considered to be threatened.
Until recently, seabirds have been able to safely assume that anything floating on the surface of the sea is edible. This is no longer the case. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, plastic in our oceans is posing a threat to all marine life, and by extension, to a lot of land life. Dissecting sea birds has given scientists an idea of what is happening out at sea… for example polystyrene breaks up easily and the bits and pieces of, say, your takeaway cup, float to the surface and mix in with the food that seabirds eat. Balloons, the kind from your birthday party, can be swallowed, or the string can entangle a bird who will slowly starve to death. They may suffocate or choke. And chemicals leaching from our plastic can enter the body of sea birds (and other animals), causing illness and death. An investigation looked at the stomach contents of albatross chicks and found identifiable plastic in the form of toothbrushes, golf balls, lighters and plastic toys alongside the microplastics.
The topic of pollution, plastics and human exploitation of, and disregard for, the sea is something that is likely to come up time and time again this month and it is not a blame filled tirade. I use a lot of plastic myself but I think it’s important to do so whilst being aware of the potential consequences. It’s easy to close our eyes and cover our ears and say we can’t do anything because the world is so big, we are so small and everyone’s doing it so why can’t we? But as we’ll see in a couple of posts time, the price we will pay for that ignorance is high.
- Wandering Albatross, Natural Histories
- Why the albatross is master of the skies
- Albatross and Fishing, Shared Planet
- Counting Birds from Space, Science in Action