Gooneybirds, Mollymawks, and Fool Birds: What a Bunch of Tubenoses

Gooneybirds, Mollymawks, and Fool Birds: What  a Bunch of Tubenoses

That albatrosses are commonly known by names that seem to call into question their faculties of mind and body, much in the manner of insults hurled by some unusually creative schoolyard bully, is ironic, given that the family Diomedeidae contains some of the most graceful and elegant animals to ever have lived.  Granted, their challenges with taking to the air are legendary, but once there, few animals appear so at home in any medium. Of the 22 extant albatross species, only three are found regularly in the Northern Hemisphere. The largest and most endangered of those three species is the Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus). Once the most common of the North American species, numbering in the millions, Short- tailed numbers declined rapidly due to feather collecting (the story behind this collecting is a remarkable monument to excess with an estimated 5 million birds being killed in 1902 alone) "recreational" shooting, and nest destruction. By 1949 the Short-tailed Albatross was thought to be extinct. 

That an animal, once so plentiful, and living in some of the most remote wilderness in the world, could have been so quickly extirpated is hard to comprehend. However, albatross are long lived with low rates of reproduction, and they are famously, and unfortunately, very unafraid of people (they were once colloquially referred to in Japanese as Ahodori or fool bird). The Short-tailed Albatross may live some 40 years or more, and is an absolute marvel in the air. One tagged individual was found to have covered over 300, 000 kilometers of open ocean in the space of five years. Short-tails are thought to be largely nocturnal feeders, they can sleep on the wing, and their only real tie to the land is the need for a solid surface upon which to lay eggs and raise chicks. Indeed, it may have been this last attribute that saved them, as young birds are thought to be able to spend years at sea.

Fortunately, their presumed extinction was not long lived, and in 1951 a small population of 10 pairs was found to be breeding on their historical nesting stronghold of Torishima Island in the Japanese archipelago. A recovery effort was undertaken, driven primarily by the work of Dr. Hiroshi Hasegawa along with the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology.  Nesting habitat was improved, and the efforts were apparently appreciated by the birds with 24 chicks being counted on Torishima in '73. In subsequent years, the population continued to climb, albeit slowly. In 1958 they were declared a Protected Species in Japan, receiving further protections when they were listed as a Special National Monument in 1962. They received US protection under the ESA in Alaska in 1972, and protection throught their US range in 2000. From 2008-20012 (after a few years of suitability analysis) chicks were translocated to an additional island, as an insurance population, give Torishima's potential volcanism. Today they are nesting primarily on 3 islands, including Midway Atoll, which is protected as a Unesco World Heritage site. The first Short-tailed hatched in the United States, hatched on Midway in 2010. 

As of 2020 the population of Short-tailed Albatross stood at roughly 7,365 birds, with a growth rate of 8.9% yearly. While this is still a very small and vulnerable population, less than 1% of its estimated historical numbers, it is clearly a wonderful example of what can be done if we take the time to collaborate and care. Dr. Rob Suryan leads the international endangered species recovery team committed to the recovery of the species, and he works in concert with the Yamashina Instute for Ornithology, the Japanese Ministry of the environment, and the USFWS. While Short-tails still face challenges; long-line casualties, climate change, and ingestion of plastic waste perhaps chief among them, there is a lot to be optimistic about given the way the species has recovered thus far. The world is a far richer place for having the Short-tailed Albatross in it, as well as all of the dedicated people that have given so much to make it so. 


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