Laysan Albatross at Midway: Battle 1

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

On December 7, 1941, after engaging in the attack on Pearl Harbor, two Japanese destroyers sailed thirteen hundred miles to the tiny atoll of Midway and bombarded the U.S. military outpost there. Within two months Midway would be attacked three more times. And four months after that, in a battle that lasted four days, the Americans would defeat the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, considered one of the most decisive naval battles of the Second World War.

During the six months this was going on, midst the noise, the death, and the destruction, added to that, the hostility of personnel who found them a menace to military operations, the millions of Laysan albatross who call Midway their home were going about their usual December to June business: finding their mates, building nests, laying and incubating eggs, fledging.

I try to imagine this colony of birds co-existing with military personnel and equipment. I wonder how they were able to keep their cool. I wonder how they were not overtaken by fear and confusion. How they were able to carry on with their lives, in all the chaos.

You cannot detonate the devotion out of an albatross, wrote Hob Osterlund in her book Holy Mōlī [Hawaiian for albatross).

Devotion is what albatross are about.

They are devoted to their birthplace.

When they are ready to be on their own, fledglings teach themselves to fly, then soar out to sea. They will travel four years, never setting down on land. When it’s time to begin an adult life, with no landmarks to guide them, they fly home to where they were born, and will continue to do so throughout their lives.

You wonder how they do it, how can they fly for years without touchdown. The albatross is an aerodynamic expert. When flying, he remains in constant, seemingly effortless motion. He exploits the wind’s energy, catching its waves with his flexible wings that span eleven or twelve feet. The adult albatross can fly fifty thousand miles in a year, reaching speeds of fifty miles per hour.  During his lifetime, an albatross might travel three million miles.

Albatross parents are devoted to their young.

They take turns incubating the one egg the female will produce.  They co-parent.  They take turns searching for food, sometimes having to travel four thousand miles over a period of two weeks.  They share the feeding of the young chick. They preen their young.  Nuzzle him.  Even before the chick begins pipping, the parents will talk to it inside the egg.

Osterlund, who has spent many years observing and documenting albatross behavior, describes albatross as talkative. Parents speak to their egg. Chicks peep while chipping away inside their eggs. Mates murmur. Courting birds whinny. Adults shriek.  They are always talking to another bird. Sometimes they talk to themselves.

Osterlund observed one youngster – named Onipa’a – talking to an umbrella she had dug up from among layers of pine needles and twigs. When she fledged and came back four years later, she returned to the umbrella, even though it had become buried once again, and even though she had to dig it out.

Albatross are devoted to their mates.

Though the adults will leave each other and fly out to sea after completing the parenting of their chick, when they return home two years later, they will seek each other out from among all the returning birds and begin the breeding process once again.  Albatross couples normally produce one chick every two years.

It is commonly believed that Albatross mate for life, and some couples do stay together for many years.

Osterlund’s book is full of stories where this is not exactly so, however. For example, she tells about two couples who switched mates, about two females sharing a nest, both with fertile eggs, males absent from the scene.

It made me wonder what mate for life really means to an albatross, she wrote. Maybe it means passing on excellent genes. Maybe it means a rock solid commitment for the survival of the kids.  Maybe it means a rollicking reunion dance once a year.  Maybe it means being punctual with meals. Maybe it means an occasional divorce, dalliance, or team-switch.

…..If we must classify others, why not create categories for qualities vital to our continued existence on this planet…….like willingness to work hard, like authenticity and compassion, like unflinching devotion to the welfare of children and animals?

2 thoughts on “Laysan Albatross at Midway: Battle 1”


    Tragically, the Albatross birds of Midway Island (and I assume other places) are huge victims of plastic waste. There is a new doc about this, as you can see in the above link. Of course, many other fellow beings are being injured and killed by plastic waste. It’s high time to put an end to this enormous, lethal pollution of the oceans.
    Many of us undoubtedly remember reading Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in high school. It has been a long time since I’ve read it, but I can see it was a prophetic book, putting forward tragedy that can befall the Albatross and by extension other living things.

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