By Eden Gallanter
With all this talk of Coastal Cleanup Day, it seems like a good time to write about a wonderful bird, and how it helps us, as environmental stewards and advocates, determine the health of our local ocean ecosystems. The Black-Footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) is one of three albatross species that range in the northern hemisphere. It has striking black plumage, black feet and a black beak, making it easy to identify as it soars above the ocean.
The Black-Footed Albatross has adapted rather wonderfully to their way of life. They have a salt gland that removes salt from their bodies, enabling them to drink seawater and salt-rich foods. The albatrosses also produce an energy-rich oil, which they store in their body to fuel their long flights and feed their young.
These striking birds are models of avian monogamy, forming lifelong pair bonds. Because raising albatross chicks is a huge investment (egg incubation lasts two months, and chicks remain flightless for four and a half months following), these birds spend a great deal of time deliberating before choosing a mate they can trust. During this 2-year courting period, the birds build nests, dance, and spend time together. After about seven years of being a pair, they begin to reproduce. The couple takes turns sitting on the eggs for a week at a time, while the other flies incredibly long distances, often hundreds of miles, to gather food– talk about a dedicated parenting team!
Another handy adaptation of the albatross is that it can regurgitate indigestible items in a tightly-wrapped ball called a bolus. This bolus gives you clues about what the albatross chooses to eat. Black-Footed Albatrosses feed mostly on fish eggs, squid, and crustaceans, but will consume all kinds of floating debris– including plastic. This bolus can then be dissected and analyzed to catalog information about human impacts on the ocean marine system.
It is easy to see how much trash is washed up on shore, but not so easy to determine what kinds of pollutants and refuse remain out on the open ocean. This is where the albatross, which feeds primarily on open ocean waters, can be so useful. It makes its nests on beaches, raising its family in a scraped depression in the sand, so the chicks’ boluses are readily available for us to study. Along with squid beaks and other natural detritus, we can see how many pieces of plastic and Styrofoam have been ingested and regurgitated.
Human-made debris in the ocean causes malnourishment, starvation, and suffocation, especially in young birds, when albatrosses inadvertently ingest it along with its other food. Because our activities on land and in the ocean disrupt this bird’s way of life, the Black-footed Albatross is classified as endangered. It’s critical to gather data, through events like Coastal Cleanup Day, about how our way of life affects the species living around us. Through expanded environmental knowledge and consciousness, we’ll have a chance to save these magnificent sea birds and other animals living all around us.
The bottom photo depicts a dissected albatross bolus. The material on the right is natural bits that should be found in the bolus– mostly squid beaks. The material to the left is all trash and bits of marine debris– mostly plastic.