Writing in the time of COVID-19: Day Fourteen

I saw it again today, in a headline, a publication using an albatross as a metaphor to imply something negative, something long-lasting, something bad.

Here’s the thing: An albatross isn’t a burden. Oh, sure, there’s Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and that business with an albatross around a sailor’s neck. But it ended up there, because one ignorant sailor killed a long, graceful albatross—master of the wind, beacon of good luck—and for that, the sailor was made to wear the albatross’ dead body around his neck as penance. The great bird was so revered its killer was shamed.

I much prefer golf’s take on albatross. The list of golfers who have scored an albatross—three shots under par—in the sport is short and mostly made up of professionals. Estimates of shooting an albatross are one in a million. In other words, rare, and I’d wager the odds of a golfer actually seeing any one of the nearly two dozen different species of albatross in flight or engaged in the sky-mooing and bill-clacking dance of courtship are much, much greater than that.

Albatross are full of superlatives. The Southern Hemisphere’s Wandering albatross sports nearly a 12-foot wingspan, the longest of any living bird. The oldest known wild bird is a Laysan albatross living in the North Pacific. She’s at least 69 years old. An albatross of that age may have flown a whopping five million miles in her lifetime. Heck, she may fly 5,000 miles just to deliver a single meal to her chick. Albatross can glide for hours, covering hundreds of miles with just a few flaps of its wings. For albatross, this is par for the course.

But because albatross spend the vast majority of their lives at sea—where some species spend the first 10 years of their lives before touching land again after fledging—relatively little is known about them. However, that is starting to change, and in learning more about albatross, scientists are learning more about our world. For example, in studying the diet of albatross, one scientist is sampling the seabird’s scat and examining how our marine ecosystems are changing as oceans warm. Other scientists are also applying the insights gleaned from albatross flight efficiencies to the development of unmanned aircraft. Think those human-guided gliders launched from atop mountains but, in this case, robotically-controlled drones powered by wind skimming across the surface of the sea. Cool, yes?

Here’s another cool thing: an albatross’ digestive system. Their stomachs are adapted for the long flights from their feeding grounds to the nesting grounds.

You know how oil and water don’t mix, right? How oil tends to float on the surface of water? Keep that in mind.

Basically, albatross have an upper stomach, or proventriculus. All food passes through here and is broken down into a mixture of water, fats, and proteins. The fatty oil layer floats to the top, while water-soluble proteins and other compounds settle to the bottom and moves into the lower stomach. It’s then digested, providing nourishment to the feeding albatross. But the oily substance in the proventriculus can be saved and regurgitated for a hungry chick back at the nest. Like in this video. Notice how the chicks’ vocalizing and the tapping at the parent’s bill helps encourage regurgitation. This is the equivalent of a child’s saying, “Mom, I’m hungry. Mom, I’m hungry. Mom, I’m hungry.”

Amazing, yes? Burden? Absolutely not.

Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases jumped to 319. Sadly, a third Hawaii resident passed away. The island of Molokai saw its first case. Kauai bumped to 13. Eighty-nine visitors arrived in Hawaii yesterday. A third person was arrested on Kauai for violating the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Empty hotels are offering complimentary rooms for health care workers and first responders who are concerned about infecting their family members at home.

Be well.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne C. says:

    Albatross definitely have a bad rap. We saw some Wandering Albatross on our Drake Passage passage. So amazingly beautiful, appearing as if out of nowhere, accompanying us a short while, then wheeling away. Thanks for the fascinating natural history. And I saw what you did there with “par for the course” 😉


    1. Kim Steutermann Rogers says:

      I so want to see a Wandering albatross in flight some day!


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