How Extreme Birds Inspire Us to be Better Humans

Memorial Day. Graduation. Father’s Day. The solstice. For most people, one of these marks the beginning of summer. For me, these calendar events signal the coming completion of albatross season. Albatross? You mean those big white birds with wingspans longer than I am tall who glide over the surface of the sea as gentle as a leaf loosed from its tree in fall and floating on currents of air? Yes, those. They can soar for hundreds of miles, skimming the ocean’s waves and wheeling up into the sky, with barely a beat of their wings.

Laysan albatross in flightI am lucky enough to live among albatross—one of only a few places in the world where humans may encounter nesting and courting Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) during their morning walk, a visit to the beach, or even during a round of golf. After an eight-month breeding season, Laysan albatross chicks will soon take to the air for the very first time and head to the far watery horizon. Their webbed, ping-pong-paddle-like feet will not touch land again for three to five years.

Classified as near threatened by the IUCN, albatross have recently made headlines, thanks to one matriarch of the seabird species named Wisdom, a female raising a chick this year at remote Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific Ocean. She was first banded by ornithologist Chandler Robbins in 1956, and is estimated to be the oldest living wild bird in the world—at 65 years old.

Absorb that.

LAALWisdomʻs Mate
Foreground: Wisdom’s mate Akeakamai.

The facts about this species are something. Their long life. The three to five years they spend selecting the right and perfect mate. The fact they will fly up five thousands miles over two weeks or more ingesting squid and flying fish to feed their chick who waits patiently at the nest. That they will log several million miles of flight time throughout their long lives.

But there’s something else about these birds, something almost ineffable, try as we do anyway to express our thoughts and feelings about them in art and poetry and words. We are human, after all, and that’s what we do: Make meaning.

I’ve tried it. I’ve written about Laysan albatross here and elsewhere, and I’m not the only one. Two friends have done so much more eloquently than I.

Carl Safina published Eye of the Albatross back in 2002, and I’ve heard him refer to it as the biography of albatross. I love that. Carl’s most recent work, the New York Times bestselling Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, will publish in paperback on July 12.

This spring, my friend Hob Osterlund published Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors, which I wrote about here. Hob is a current Safina Center Fellow.

Recently, the three of us chatted via email. I imagined Carl in his Long Island beach cottage amid dune grass on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, his dogs Chula and Jude beside him. In my mind, I saw Hob on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, camera in hand, field notebook, binoculars, and multiples of Laysan albatross in full courtship mode.

Kim: What is it about albatross that fascinated you enough to write a book about them?

Carl Safina and DogsCarl: I studied terns for 10 years for my masters and PhD and have always loved seabirds. Albatrosses are the extreme seabirds so naturally I was destined to get pulled in by them and try to get into them pretty deep. I wrote Eye of the Albatross, and also a National Geographic feature article for the December 2007 issue. I’ve seen more kinds of albatrosses in more parts of the world than I ever dreamed possible. Alaska, Hawaii’s main islands and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, California, Galapagos, New Zealand, South Africa, Antarctica, the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island, Campbell Island, the Falklands—more than a dozen species. Never thought that would happen to this kid from Brooklyn!

Hob: When I first saw a few of the early “prospectors” in 1979, I was instantly smitten with them: their size, their beauty, their courtship, their affection toward each other, their fearlessness around humans. It was a bit like looking through a one-way mirror—I could see them perfectly, but they showed no indication they even knew I was there. I framed one of the photos I took of those birds and hung it in every place I lived for the next twenty-five years. After I moved back to Kaua`i in 2003, I got an unexpected invitation to regularly observe a colony. After I gathered years of stories about their lives and about the impact the birds had on me, I had enough to weave them together into a book.

Kim: Hob, what do you mean by “prospectors?” And can you elaborate on the species’ connection to the Hawaiian culture?

Hob reading-2Hob: I’m told that many animal species have individuals called prospectors and pioneers—the ones who are more likely to explore boundaries, push the envelope, discover new territory. In the case of albatross, the females are more likely to be the ones who qualify for those behaviors. We know mōlī nested in Hawaii for thousands or millions of years before the arrival of humans. After humans arrived, they were likely extirpated from inhabited land, and were seen only at sea or on uninhabited Hawaiian Islands. In the mid-1970s, some birds we seen courting on Kaua`i, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the first chick in many years—perhaps many centuries—fledged from a bluff on the north shore. In Holy Moli, I call the first modern mother Makani, named after the wind. We know she hatched on Midway, about fifteen hundred miles to the northwest. Why did she bypass her home, her parents and thousands of potential mates and fly the opposite direction of her primary food source? When she chose Kaua`i as her place and successfully raised a chick, she started a new (or resurrected) colony. For the first time ever, albatross had chosen to nest among a sizable population of humans. Mōlī are considered `aumakua in Hawaii, ancestors who appear in animal form to protect or warn their descendants.

Kim: Albatross are known for many things. For you, what is the coolest thing about them?

Carl: It’s probably a guy thing but even though I love small animals such as reef fishes and warblers and chipmunks, I am also drawn to the extremes of speed and/or size or migrational distances; falcons, tunas—albatrosses—and others. But it’s not a question of “coolest thing about them;” it’s that they are the coolest things! Dances, lifelong mating, incredible wings and gliding capacity, their ability to fly millions of miles and live into their 60s, their ability to find specks of land and then their own chick among thousands, their extreme grace and physical beauty—. But there is something else. Albatrosses on their nests are more serene than any animal I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly striking. In their company, time slows, thickens, and congeals into vivid streaks of time made of elongated moments stitched together, and the original world re-emerges.

Hob: To me everything about them is cool. Of course I have only seen them during the 5% of their lives they spend on the ground, so who knows what we would learn if we could follow them with a camera at sea? One thing that touches me is their stillness—a behavior we could perhaps call patience—when they wait to reunite with their mates, when they sit trance-like on their eggs, when their offspring wait days and weeks for their parents to bring home the next meal.

Another thing is their wayfinding, how they forage millions of square miles of open sea and still locate the exact spot where their chick awaits them? Of course there’s their affection toward their mates. And their hard-working commitment to their babes. How both genders are equally committed and skilled. How the chicks must finally choose to leap off the ledge, having never been shown how to fly or find food.  How humans so quickly fall in love with them.

Kim: I have a particular interest in a concept called “place attachment,” in which we as people bond with geographic places in much the same way we bond with other people. As seabirds, albatross are known to spend about 95% of their time at sea, returning to land to breed and raise their young. What is the relationship albatross have with land?

osterlund4Hob: Land is tremendously important to albatross. It’s where they find mates, reunite year after year and where they lay their eggs and raise their chicks. The North Pacific Ocean is enormous—millions of square miles—so their ability to find their earthly homes is vital. For birds who spend most of their lives solo, they are tremendously social during the nesting season. Young adults who are not ready to be parents also have a complex relationship with unrelated chicks. They are drawn to the chicks, and sometimes seem to babysit. At other times they appear instructive. How else would chicks learn when to be submissive, how to court, what various calls mean? I’ve been impressed with specific birds and their affinities—not just for an island or a colony, but for a few precious square feet. In my book Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors, I tell the story of a mated pair I call Colonel Trombone and The Librarian. When a fence was built to keep predators out, it inadvertently dissected in half an area of about one hundred square feet. Colonel Trombone preferred one side; The Librarian preferred the other. Before the fence they would not have been forced to choose; after the fence they had a difficult time overriding what their internal GPS reported. After The Librarian was killed by dogs on the unsafe side of the fence, the Colonel rarely returned to the place where she was so committed. I saw her 1-2x/season for a couple of years, and wondered if she had found a new mate or a new nest affinity. Earlier this year I saw her only once, a few miles from her previous nest. She was not nesting. It makes me wonder about place attachment for the birds, and the impact trauma might have on that attachment.

Kim: Like me, you are both, clearly, smitten with albatross. I think we learn what it means to be human when we study animals with the kind of high regard that you two have over the years. Thinking of those calendar events we have this month, what can albatross teach us about being a father?

Laysan albatrossCarl: Albatrosses are exceptionally faithful mates and reliable fathers. Father albatrosses are crucial; females alone cannot raise their chick. And the dads step up; they are equal to the task. Because they are defined by their relationships with their mates, they are somebody. An albatross is a “who,” rather than an “it.” They are not “just” birds; they are not scenery. They are lives, parallel lives, who have managed to get this far along with us. We don’t need them, but they need us.

Kim: What can the fledging of these chicks teach us about graduating into adulthood?

Hob: Before the chicks fledge, they have to be ready to accept a whole new reality. Every moment of their lives has been on land; it’s the only place they’ve seen their parents and been fed.  No one has ever shown them how to fly long distances or where and how to find food. The more I watch them, the more I think that graduating from one reality to another is how life is intended for all beings, that it takes effort, that it’s often a life-or-death event, and that we only make ourselves suffer if we resist these transitions.

Kim: Carl, as an ocean conservationist, what can albatross tell us about our oceans?

Carl: One word: Plastic. Next word: Climate. Third word: Bycatch. Fourth word: Overfishing. I think the images of albatross bellies full of toothbrushes and cigarette lighters was shocking to many people. Rightly so. This is not the relationship we are supposed to have with the living world. The bond between parent and chick is the sacred chain of being. If that chain breaks, if one generation cannot raise the next, everything collapses. After millions of years it all stops. It ends. The scene with the adult trying to feed a toothbrush to a chick in my book Eye of the Albatross is the one most commonly remarked on by people who read it. In the North Pacific the islands albatrosses nest on are mostly very low. Sea level rise will wipe them out. Most higher islands are full of people, dogs, and rats. That makes a high place like Kauai, and the people working with Hob to stabilize an opportunity for albatrosses, crucial. Albatrosses are the most endangered family of birds and most of that is from getting killed on fishing gear, in nets and especially on longline hooks. Longlines are frequently 25 miles long with thousands of hooks. Albatrosses must also simply compete with humans for squid and for fish. It’s a lot of new stuff that we have thrown their way. I hope they can cope.

Kim: What’s the best thing we can do for these magnificent beings?

Carl: Eat low-bycatch fish recommended by The Safina Center and Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Help humanity phase away from fossil fuels. Go see some albatrosses, either on some of the West Coast whale-watch vessels or on Hawaii. They need you. Go!

skeletal and plastic remains of an albatross
Skeletal and Plastic Remains of an Albatross

Hob: The best thing we can do is to take care of the oceans, to stop treating them as dumps and as refrigerators with an infinite supply of food we have a “right” to take. We can open ourselves to the wisdom and individuality of our siblings on this planet, and practice compassion toward them.  We can be warriors for them. We can stand and face the fire rather than turn our backs and pretend we don’t know about the looming catastrophes.  We can fledge from the immature stage when we thought the world was ours, and all about us.  We can be less afraid. We can grow courage.  We can find community in fellow humans who are doing the same.  People with large financial reserves can buy land and protect it and all its native critters.  People with small financial reserves can donate to the organizations and people who are doing the protecting.  It’s time for all hands on deck.  Kauaʻi is their Noahʻs Ark, but Noah is no longer one person.  Noah is all of us.

Carl: Very rarely I offer what I call my highest praise, which is the feeling that, “I wish I’d written this.” Well, Hob—I wish I’d written this. It’s beautiful, moving, deeply informed, deeply felt, rooted.

Kim: Let’s clear up something. That misinformed, inaccurate metaphor about an albatross around the neck.

Hob: The image of an albatross around the neck comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridgeʻs Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, the albatross is a hero who leads a stranded ship to safety. The mariner, however, decides to shoot the bird with his crossbow. As the winds cease and all the sailors begin to die of thirst, they curse the mariner and force him to wear the bird’s body around his neck. Somehow over the centuries the metaphor has morphed into making the albatross sound like a burden. In fact, it’s the human mind that’s the burden. The human mind that causes us to destroy that which saves us.  In the poem, the mariner is forever cursed because of his actions.

Kim: Lastly, I’m feeling a change in attitudes toward animals in our world. Do you agree?

beyondwords-paperback-e1466014381216Carl: There’s a small but significant and accelerating shift in how people (at least in the developed world). There’s the outrage over the killing of Cecil the Lion. There’s been the recent cessation of bio-medical testing on chimpanzees. There are endless videos on the web showing other animals with their friends, their injured companions, and so on. More people seem to be interested in reducing the meat they eat, for humane reasons. I think this reveals a shift from seeing animals as “it” to seeing them as “who.” We are understanding better that individual animals experience individual lives, that in some species individual relationships define them, and that the industrial food system makes animals live far worse than they are made to die. The geometry of human progress is an expanding circle of compassion, and I view this shift as true progress in going beyond civilization to fuller humanization.




7 Comments Add yours

  1. Tina says:

    Wow! What a Bonanza! Now, every time I want to share my passion for and information about albatross, I just need to remember today’s auspicious date: 6/16/16. Here we have a few of my favorite people talking about a few of my favorite things, and now I have the perfect link to share, and hopefully enlarge the circle of those who care. Mahalo nui loa to all of you for taking the time to write so eloquently and educate so lucidly. This post is the perfect fit for the current Zeitgeist.


    1. Kim says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment. I like that we have a growing community of people extolling the wonders of and reverence for our natural world. Yes, please share!


  2. Many thanks for this opportunity, Kim, and for such a great piece. May it recruit many more folks to the Mōlī Fan Club!


    1. Kim says:



  3. bigsurwriter says:

    Thanks for continuing to educate us, Kim, and for sharing the work of Kim and Carl. I too love the Albatross. I will never forget my experiences with you and the birds in Kauai. I was fortunate to go and see them in New Zealand too.


  4. Mary says:

    Once more I am so overwhelmed with the greatness of these magnificent birds. Thanks for another informative writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s