Of Mice and Midway and A Few Other Things
What is with bird names? You’ve got boobies. Bushtits. Dickcissels. Kākās. And then you’ve got the Satanic Nightjar, Firewood-gatherer, Invisible Rail, and Lazy Cisticola. All I can say is I’m glad one of the names for Laysan albatross didn’t stick. That is, the “White Gooney.”
I’m reading a report by an entomologist who was first dispatched to what was then called the Midway Islands (now known as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge) in 1936, just one year after the Pan American Airways Company started laying over at these islands that were midway (hence, the name: clever) between North America and Asia.
I may not like the name they give albatross, but I do like this tidbit from the report. A photo caption under an image of a Laysan albatross says, “The Laysan albatross or white gooney, one of the most interesting inhabitants of Midway Islands.” Indeed. I concur—even more interesting if you ask me than one famous visitor, Earnest Hemingway, who is said to have stayed at the Reef Hotel, once perched over the reef five miles off Sand Island, the largest of the three islands in the atoll. It was a short-lived hotel. Whether big winter waves took it out or its demise was due to World War II, I don’t know.
There’s no denying the albatross at Midway. In fact, the colony at Midway is noted as the largest albatross colony in the world. There are three species of albatross that visit and/or nest there: Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed albatrosses. By "largest," we mean somewhere in the neighborhood of a million-and-a-half albatross hanging out on roughly a couple thousand acres.
However, an unfortunate non-native mammal arrived at Midway about the same time as Hemingway’s “air-ships,” (a term previously used for “airplanes”) and the massive build-up of the military during World War II and for numerous decades after: The common house mouse. For decades mice and birds played nice. There are no native birds at Midway that prey on mice. However, unexplainable, in 2015, the mice started attacking Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses—adult albatrosses. The first question that went through my mind what I heard it was, “What about Wisdom?” Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird in the world, and she’s a Laysan albatross. At 67, she’s raising yet another chick, maybe her 35th, maybe her 40th. Maybe more!
So, I wrote about the whole thing and Wisdom’s safety for Audubon online: Do Bird-Eating Mice Pose a Danger to Wisdom the Albatross?
Because of their stellar support of Wisdom the Albatross, I’m donating 20% of April’s Albatography’s proceeds to Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. I know it’s kinda late notice, considering it’s the last week of April; however, you still have five good (and growing longer) days to make a purchase from Albatography and ensure a donation also gets made to Friends of Midway for albatross conservation work. I know several of the non-profit organization’s board members. They’re good people.
A couple other things:
1. For those of you who follow the Cornell AlbatrossCam, you’re likely familiar with an on-cam chick known as Kiamanu. Maybe you’ve even donated to her feedings. A few weeks ago, it was determine Kiamanu wasn’t quite getting fed enough, because her father stopped returning to provision her. He is a first-time dad, so perhaps he just doesn’t have this long breeding season figured out yet. Too, he may have died at sea. But Kauai Albatross Network and Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with Save Our Shearwaters, a seabird rehabilitation center on Kauai asked for help in raising funds to feed Kiamanu through feedings. And, lo, in another example of mōlī magic, the necessary funds—and then some—were raised in less than 24 hours.
Well, on Albatography, we have Kiamanu pendants and a Kiamanu metal print, both available now.
2. As for what our chicks are up to, at nearly three months of age, they’re standing on two legs—balanced by those generous spatulas called feet—and walking some. They’re making new nest cups. They’re preening their downy feathers off the tips of their incoming white contour (body) feathers. It’s quite the look. Almost like they could be a separate species altogether. When albatross chicks stretch to wingercize, it looks like they have dark fringe hanging from their growing wings. And growing they are doing, especially those wings. This takes quite a bit of energy and may actually slow our chicks down some, as they sit quietly and ponder life—or whatever they do between feedings from their parents. Speaking of their parents, adults are spending longer stretches at sea, perhaps lasting a couple weeks, as they venture to the North Pacific up near the Aleutian Islands to fill up their pantry of a body, so they can regurgitate it for their chicks back on land. But that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening at the colonies. There are often raucous courtship dances going on at all hours among three or four or five prospecting birds. Prospectors = juveniles looking for mates. Albatross will spend anywhere from two to five years selecting the right and perfect mate with which to form a long-term pair bond. When you realize that their bonds last decades, a couple years carefully selecting the right one doesn’t seem that ridiculous. What’s fun is I am seeing chicks that I helped band three and four and five years ago now returning to the colony—often the same place they hatched—to begin this next phase of their life. When it comes to albatross, something interesting’s always going on.
Before I sign off, here’s another name for Laysan albatross: Mōlī. It’s a fine name. It’s the Hawaiian name for Laysan albatross. Why didn’t we just stick with that?