The Laysan albatross chick spends 65 days going from a swampy mess of gelatinous goo to a scrawny, downy fluffball that we recognize as a bird. But, even so, after that miracle of life, as you might call it, just when it’s ready to emerge into this air-breathing world, the chick has one more hurdle to overcome. And it may take up to 48 hours to accomplish it. Fortunately, bird biology has equipped the Laysan albatross chick with an “eye tooth,” a notch on its bill that helps it crack out of the calcium enclosure in which it’s stewed for two months. This process, in the bird world, is called pipping. And, then, after the pipping is complete, the bird is hatched. A hatchling.
Here’s my question: Would you intervene?
If you saw that avocado-sized egg with a few pinholes in its shell, maybe even a chunk or two missing, and a wet and wobbly-headed chick inside, would you reach over and give the egg a crack? Help the chick emerge?
What if you were one of its parents, alternating incubating duties for those 65 days? What if you’d spent the past three to five years tilting your head to the sky, clacking your bill, shaking your head–and other body parts–to find the right and perfect mate with which to kiss cloacas and make this very chick, that, by now, 24 hours into the process, was half-inside, half-outside its egg? And before that, after you yourself had spent 65 days forming inside an egg, pipping, hatching, and fledging, to soar over the ocean for the first three to five years of your life before returning to land to find this perfect mate and kiss cloacas and make this chick? What if you’d spent your whole life flying around the North Pacific, logging tens of thousands of miles on your non-existent odometer, waiting for just this moment?
If that were you, if you were the parent of a Laysan albatross chick pipping its way to freedom, would you tilt your head down between your legs and with your four-inch weapon of a bill, give the egg that imprisoned your chick a crack? Help your chick emerge? Intervene?
This is what I’m wondering on my second full week job-free. (Not that there isn’t work; there is. I am not “retired,” as in the commonly-held definition of “retired,” so stop saying that to me;-)
Here’s why I’m thinking about intervention.
On Tuesday of this week, I received a call from an island biologist about a Laysan albatross chick “of concern.” Photos were emailed. The chick looked in bad shape; it was possibly missing an eye.
On Friday, I got another call. The mother of another Laysan albatross chick, this one the star of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “albatross cam,” had returned from a foraging excursion at sea with a funny-looking wing. Perhaps a couple of her primary feathers–critical for flight–were broken. Too, when she regurgitated her bonanza from the Pacific Ocean–maybe flying fish, maybe fish eggs, maybe squid–for her Internet star child, named Kaloakulua, a bump the size of a chicken’s egg bulged from inside mom’s neck. Was it a giant squid that couldn’t come up? A plastic cigarette lighter she had ingested at sea, mistaking it for food?
The answer to my original question, if you were this chick’s parent, is no. It might be a right of passage. It might be the process strengthens the chick’s physical make-up in some way. It might be that the calcium egg provides nutritious ingredients for its first few days or weeks of life. It might be all three. Or a hundred other things. Whatever it is, no, the parent does not intervene. At least, I’ve never seen one stick its neck between its legs and crack open its chick’s egg and hurry its arrival.
In the end, apart from a lot of hand-wringing, massive texts messages, numerous phone calls, and nest-site visits, we did not intervene on behalf of the chick with the bad eye or the mother with the funny wing.
The chick with the bad eye had a severe case of avian pox, a virus we often see develop and spread during rainy seasons–it’s mosquito-borne. Usually, the hideous scabs eventually fall off, and the chicks are fine. (In rare cases, the pox can lead to blinding and deformed bills.)
In Kaluahine’s case, the mother with the funny wing, she napped the afternoon away–during which time the chicken-egg-bump in her throat went away, possibly digested–and she woke, preened the feathers on her mighty, three-foot wing with diligence, paced the yard next to her chick’s nest, stretched her wings and flapped a few times, took a running start or two, and, finally, of her own accord, in her own good time, spread her wings and took to the sea.
And, so, we sat back, let nature do her thing, both for the chick with pox and mom with the funny wing. Because, so often, nature knows exactly what to do, and we just have to watch.
But on the off chance Mother Nature needed our help, a team of us were ready. People who want to see this great diversity of life on earth go on. People who do not want to see a life lost or a species go extinct. People who care about nature, our environment, and the big blue-and-green speck of a world in which we live.
I call us Mothers of Nature.
A Mother of Nature picks up marine debris when she takes the kids to the beach. A Mother of Nature carries cloth bags when he goes to the grocery store. A Mother of Nature says no to single-use plastic bottles. A Mother of Nature presents a re-useable coffee cup at her favorite coffee shop.
A Mother of Nature rises before dawn to pup-sit an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. A Mother of Nature falls captive to the precociousness and preciousness of a Laysan albatross chick on a bird cam. A Mother of Nature testifies before his legislature on behalf of the animals who cannot speak our language. A Mother of Nature hugs trees, yes, but, more than that, she’s willing to climb the tree to prevent it from being cut down.
And, in some cases, a Mother of Nature doesn’t do anything. She doesn’t intervene. But he always bows his head in gratitude and recognition of the great interconnected natural world in which he lives, no matter if he really understands—or even likes—all the connections or not.