Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Albatross

Chief Mate, me, C.S. Global Link,
Charleston, SC, circa 2001

As many of you already know, I spent a decade at sea as a merchant mariner. Not the normal course of study for someone who longed to be a veterinarian, but when you love science and animals the sea is not a far cry for a lover of living things.

In my whole ten years there were very few sightings of the albatross. But every sailor knows that the spotting of an albatross is the beacon of good fortune, and a reminder that no matter how far your chart says you are from land, you are never alone. Us 'old salts' also know that loneliness is a state of mind and not a geographical location.

I stumbled upon this blog on the NPR site (another great place for science lovers!), and I wanted to share it with you..Enjoy..
and should you ever see an albatross please send them a little well-wish, after all you might the last human they see for a long while.

Diedra reports to KP (USMMA) July 1988 for plebe year.
Me, the glamorous second classman,
with my brother and mom and the director of admissions.

There is love. And then there's albatross love.
In his new book, The Thing With Feathers, Noah Strycker says albatrosses have 
a knack for coupling. "These globe trotters, who mate for life and are incredibly 
faithful to their partners, just might have the most intense love affairs of any 
animal on our planet," he writes.
Noah knows "love" is a word normally reserved for humans. Technically,
 what albatrosses do is "pair bond." But call it what you will, he says — 
"to see what real devotion is like, you need to spend some quality time
 with an albatross."
They are seabirds. They spend 95 percent of their time sailing through the air 
for thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of miles. They fish. 
They rest on the oceans' surface. They can go for years never seeing land. 
But they are born on dry land.
Robert Krulwich/NPR
The chick's parents build a nest near the place where they, in turn, had been born. Albatrosses lay one egg at a time. Once the chick's feathers grow in so it can 
stay warm, its parents fly off, coming back for occasional food deliveries. 
But typically the chick "spends a full nine months sitting alone ... in its 
nest, most of the time in quiet contemplation of its surroundings since 
it has no siblings."
Robert Krulwich/NPR
It grows slowly. Then, one day, when it feels ready, it picks up, and with no 
instruction, it flings itself into the air and flies out to sea. It will stay out there 
for six years until it feels the urge to mate. Then all the albatrosses from its 
generation head back, one by one, to their native island — usually to a 
spot alongside the ocean where they land, gather and, one by one, 
they begin — to dance.
Noah writes, the "two birds face each other, patter their feet to stay close 
as they move forward and backward, each testing the other's reflexes, 
and point their beaks at the sky."
"Then, as they simultaneously utter a chilling scream, the albatrosses 
each extend their wings to show off the full 12-foot span, facing off while
 continuing to jockey for position. They touch beaks, throw their heads 
back again and scream."
For a long while they will dance with several partners, but gradually — 
it can take years to pick the right partner — they will find a particular favorite. 
Together those two continue to refine their steps, until, having 
"spent so much time dancing with that specific bird ... 
that pair's sequence of moves is as unique as a lover's fingerprint."
Robert Krulwich/NPR
Now they are ready to mate.
Robert Krulwich/NPR
It has taken 15 years to decide on a partner, but having decided, albatrosses 
don't switch. "It will generally stick faithfully with its mate until one of them dies,
 which might not be for another fifty years."
This is not true of most birds. In 1996, Jeffrey Black compiled a table of bird 
divorce rates for his book, Partnership In Birds. He collected data on 100 or 
so different species, all of which form long-term partnerships. 
"Slam-bang, thank-you ma'am" hookup types weren't included. 
Then he looked to see how often these birds break up before either one dies.
Robert Krulwich/NPR
Flamingos, it turns out, are embarrassing. 
They break up 99 percent of the time.
The divorce rate for piping plovers is 67 percent. Ducks do better than humans. 
Human marriages (American ones) fail at a rate of roughly 40 percent 
(which is about equal to Nazca boobies). 
Mallard marriages are 91 percent successful.
The big shock was swans. Everybody, ornithologists included, figured swans 
would be at the top of the Most Faithful list. But they're not. 
They have a 5 percent divorce rate. So who's the champ? Do I need to say?
Robert Krulwich/NPR
Albatrosses are 100 percent faithful.
That's not to say that albatross dads don't occasionally have a dalliance 
with ladies who aren't their mates. That happens. But the original pair stays intact 
— which is surprising when you consider that albatross couples can last for 
decades. The oldest known female, Noah writes, is "named Wisdom, who, 
as of 2013, was still raising chicks at the age of 62."
What's more, they don't see each other that often. When at sea, couples 
don't hang together. It's too easy to get separated. "So even the most
 committed partners habitually spend months at a time alone, 
without knowing what their mates are up to."
They don't build nests every year. Often, they'll wait for two. But when 
the urge is on them, somehow they both manage to return to the 
nesting site at roughly the same time "almost as if the date were 
prearranged" and they settle in.
"There are few distractions in the life of an albatross, so the birds 
concentrate on things that matter most — such as one another. 
They often sleep with the head of one bird cozily pillowed against 
the breast of its mate," Noah writes.
Whatever it is that brings them together, albatrosses turn out to 
be among the animal kingdom's most successful couplers. 
Nobody knows what they've got that makes them this way.
"Different people report seeing various things deep in the 
inky-black eyes of an albatross," Noah writes. 
"Wisdom, serenity, wilderness, peace, endurance —
 which are well and good, but all I see — is love."

Although I do not answer questions on flamingos, albatrosses, or other sea
birds, you can ask any pet question, or answer other interesting animal questions,
meet other fellow animal lovers, post photos of your favorite critters,
or create a topic of your choosing and build your own little nest of knowledge,
for free at
Or find me and my chirps on Twitter @FreePetAdvice, or come say hello
in person at the clinic, Jarrettsville Vet
Circa C.S. Global Mariner, probably 1998
Marta, Marty, Me
(three females on a ship, definitely dangerous,
probably regarded as "very bad luck" to the other 110 males onboard.
(the ship never sank, how bad could we be?).

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