Living on the Wind

In January 1832 Charles Darwin found himself off Cape Horn aboard the Beagle in the midst of a ferocious storm. “The sight of such a coast,” he would later say of parts of the region, “is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about death, peril, and shipwreck.”* Yet so ardent was the young naturalist’s curiosity that even when tempest-tossed he found his attention focused on a bird. “Whilst we were heavily labouring, it was curious to see how the Albatross with its widely expanded wings, glided right up the wind,” wrote the man who would later teach the world that such superb adaptation is the result of millions of years of evolutionary change.

While evolution has allowed albatrosses to find rest even in the midst of a storm, it has paradoxically left them unable to endure a calm and sunny sea. That is so because they are gliders par excellence, whose breast muscles are so reduced that they cannot fly like other birds, but must, like ships of old, have a breeze to make headway. Their extreme adaptation means that albatrosses spend more of their life aloft than almost any other kind of fowl. They even sleep on the wing. We know this because a dozing bird occasionally runs into a boat that it has been following. They are also very long-lived, though just how long is not known with certainty because banding programs (in which they are given individual leg bands and thus can be recognized upon recapture) have not been running long enough to follow their life cycle from beginning to end. Some birds, however, are still traveling the globe with vigor at age sixty, leading researchers to postulate that the average albatross will travel more than 3.7 million miles in a lifetime—enough to circle the world at the equator around 180 times. So routine are the long-distance flights of these great birds that parents have been known to complete a global circumnavigation just to provide a feed for a chick.

All are large but the largest of all, the Wandering albatross, is a true giant, weighing twenty-six pounds, or twice as much as a Bald eagle. Yet they glide so effortlessly on their eleven-foot wingspan that they expend more energy when resting on the sea than when aloft. Only when the wind fails, or when they wish to feed or breed, do albatrosses alight willingly.

Most of us will never see an albatross, for twenty of the twenty-four recognized populations (scientists disagree over precisely how many species exist) inhabit the great Southern Ocean. There they ride the roaring forties and screaming sixties, feeding in the rich sub-Antarctic seas on a surprising variety of foods—almost anything, it seems, that they can fit down their gullet. Just four kinds are found in the North Pacific, but they include the most endangered and the most abundant of all. Indeed so numerous is the North Pacific Laysan albatross that its breeding colony on Midway Atoll, which is part…

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