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Albatrosses are hard-working athletes.  To be a successful albatross means having some amazing skills, including the ability to make tremendous long-distance flights. Keep reading to introduce yourself to the bird Family Diomedeidae (Dye-oh-med-EE-id-ee), the albatrosses.


Black-footed Albatross
on its nest in the Hawaiian Islands


Click here!

Albatrosses are AMAZING!  They are among the largest flying birds, weighing in at up to 10 kilograms (22 lbs).  Some species display striking colors and perform beautiful mating dances.  Albatrosses are oceanic birds.  They live at sea and find their fish and squid food on the open ocean.  They come to land on islands only because their offspring have to be on land until they can fly. This can be a problem for Mom and Dad Albatross, because the food in the ocean may be a long distance from where the nesting island happens to be!   To handle this problem albatrosses can cover thousands of kilometers during one trip to find food for their babies and themselves.  Let's introduce you to the birds and their athletic ability.
 
Scientists have found that there are
24 species of albatrosses, and they all have a stocky body, webbed feet, very long wings, and hooked beak.  Click here and see some pics. 

Some basics of being an albatross are:

Yucky child care.   Babies in the nest, or "nestlings", get their food when the mother or father returns to the nest and gives it to them.  Some bird species carry the food, like a worm or insect, in the bill and pop it into the nestling's mouth.  That is not what albatrosses do.  Albatross parents catch and swallow their prey at sea, then fly back to the nest.  The parents then...uh... regurgitate the food into the nestling's mouth.  You might not know what "regurgitate" means, but you probably do know what "vomit" means, and it is the same thing.  How would YOU like to get your breakfast that way?  Well, albatross babies love it!


Parent Laysan albatross feeding its young by REGURGITATION.
Look like it's
EATING the chick, not feeding it! 
R. Shallenberger


Parent waved albatross and its single egg
(that thing between the feet).

Males and females are different sizes.   In each species, most males are bigger than most females.  In most bird species the males are somewhat larger than the females, or they are pretty much the same size.   In a small number of bird species, especially eagles and hawks, the female is larger than the male. All lay only one egg each year.  In this way they differ from most other birds.  If you go to a park in your area in the Springtime and happen to notice a bird's nest, the clutch size (number of eggs in the nest) will probably be 4 or 5.  Ducks may have clutch sizes of 10 or more eggs.  Most birds lay more than one egg per breeding season, but not albatrosses.

Albatrosses are pretty unusual in laying one egg.  The graph below shows the normal clutch size of some types of birds.  The green points are birds that eat mostly plants (herbivores), and the red points are predators.  Albatrosses are predators also, but they are shown in black.  Birds that only lead their young to food and don't actually give them food (like pheasants, ducks, and swans) usually lay more eggs than the rest of the birds do that carry food to the nestlings in the nest.  Albatrosses are predatory and they bring food to their young in the nest, so it is not a surprise that they have a small clutch size.  However, compared to some other birds in that same situation, like pelicans and eagles, they still have an unusually small clutch.  Ornithologists (scientists that study birds) have an idea that the long feeding trips of albatrosses cause the small clutch size, because the parents cannot bring food often enough to satisfy more than one chick in the nest.

Coke Can, Albatross Egg, Chicken Egg
Soda can, albatross egg, and chicken egg. 
The albatross egg is BIG!

Albatrosses work hard for a living.  Take egg laying as an example.  The bigger albatrosses lay bigger eggs; it's more or less correct to say that the mass (weight) of the egg is about 8% of the female's body mass.  What if WE laid eggs that were 8% of our mass?  How much does a human mother weigh?  For a 60 kg (132 lb) mom, an egg that size would weigh 4.8 kg (10.5 lb), which in fact is about the size of a large human baby.  Ask a mom how easy it would be to produce an egg that size!  If a 35 kg (77 lb.) sixth grader laid an egg that was 8% of body mass, it would weigh 2.8 kg (6.2 lbs) and be close to the size of a gallon of milk!!

Albatrosses eat meat.
  Albatrosses eat mostly fish, fish eggs, and squid.  They may find and kill their prey at the ocean's surface, or they may scavenge dead bodies floating on the surface, like vultures do on land.  The diet of albatrosses can be studied when they arrive at their nest to feed their young.  When the parent regurgitates, you can see what has been brought back from the sea.  The regurgitations sometimes contain pieces of prey items that were much too large to have been subdued by an albatross, so the bird must have ripped off a piece of a dead animal floating around.

 
In The Albatross Project, we are most interested in the work that albatrosses do to find food. Finding food is a constant effort for albatrosses.  The food that they eat is sometimes abundant, but often is not.  It seems that some albatrosses have to travel over wide areas of ocean in search of food.  That might be challenging enough, but they have an egg or chick back at the nest.  So, they are limited in their travels because they have to return to the nest, and the nest is at a fixed location.  For example, when the father is incubating (warming) the egg, the mother is free to search for food for herself, but her trip cannot be too long or the father will get too hungry.  If that happens, he will leave the egg to find food, and the egg will chill and the embryo inside will die.  If the egg has hatched, then the nestling needs food every once in a while too!  So, the parent at sea must hustle, get a belly-full, and hurry back to the nest.  How can they do it when their prey is not near the nesting island?  Flying is hard work, and uses a lot of energy.  Plus, if the parent has to bring back a big load of food to last itself or its nestling for days or weeks, isn't that extra weight going to make flying even harder?  Albatrosses have two tools that they can use:

1) they have the ability to concentrate the food they catch and store it in their bellies

2) using "dynamic soaring" they can fly LOOOOONNNG distances with little effort to find the food and then take it to the nest.

You can find out about the food storing and dynamic soaring by hitting one of the buttons below.  You can also run the Cost of Flight Virtual Computer to calculate the energy that albatrosses use to move themselves and their food through the air.  And after you know these things, you should be ready to use satellites to track some albatrosses when they take some of the monster trips!




This page was last updated on January 27, 1999 08:25 AM