Short-tailed Albatross

Description and biology

Albatrosses are ocean birds that spend most of their time gliding over the open sea. They come ashore only to nest. The short–tailed albatross, also known as the Stellar’s albatross, is a large bird with a 7–foot (2–meter) wingspan. It has a white body, neck, and head. Its wings and the tip of its tail are dark brown. The bird feeds on fish, shrimp, and squid.

Like other albatrosses, the short–tailed albatross has an elaborate courtship ritual that includes dancing, stamping, and special greeting calls. After mating, the male and female pair build a crude nest in a clump of tall grass on the slope of a volcano, and the female lays a single white egg. Both parents guard and incubate (sit on or brood) the egg for two to three months until it hatches.

Both parents then feed the chick, often by regurgitating (vomiting) partially digested food directly into its beak. The young albatross leaves the nest at about five months of age but does not reach full maturity for eight to nine years. Short–tailed albatrosses mate for life. The couples return to the same nest sites year after year.

Habitat and current distribution

The short–tailed albatross mates and nests only on the volcanic island of Torishima, one of the Izu Islands south of Tokyo, Japan. The bird’s guano (excrement) enriches the volcanic soil of Torishima, which in turns helps the growth of the tall grass clumps used as nesting sites.

In the late 1940s, biologists (people who study living organisms) estimated that there were fewer than 50 adult short–tailed albatrosses. By 2000, there were an estimated 1,200 birds in the wild.

History and conservation measures

In the nineteenth century, the short-tailed albatross had a population that numbered in the hundreds of thousands or millions. It nested on islands throughout the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Its range extended along the entire western coast of North America, where Native Americans hunted it for food.

By the early twentieth century, its population had been quickly reduced by hunters seeking the bird’s beautiful snowy–white breast feathers. In 1903, the Japanese government outlawed the hunting of the birds for their feathers, but the practice continued. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is estimated that feather hunters killed 5 million of the birds in about 17 years.

In 1929, only 1,400 birds remained in existence. In 1939, there was a volcanic eruption on Torishima, which buried much of the habitat. By the end of World War II (1939–45), the short–tailed albatross was feared extinct. Then, in 1951, a tiny colony of ten birds was discovered on Torishima.

Japanese biologists (people who study living organisms) and conservationists (people who work to protect the natural world) worked hard to save the short–tailed albatross. The Japanese island breeding habitat is protected, and it has been improved with new plantings and the elimination of feral animals (domestic animals that have become wild).

Other islands are being prepared as potential habitats for the species, in an effort to relocate them and save them from future volcanic eruptions on Torishima. Efforts have been made to reduce pollution in the ocean. Commercial fishers in Alaska are being educated about the birds so that they will stop accidentally catching them.

The short–tailed albatross has made a significant recovery, moving from endangered to vulnerable status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List. The species remains in jeopardy, however, because its main breeding habitat is volcanic. An eruption could destroy most of the albatross’s habitat.