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Black-browed Albatross.jpg
Scientific Classification
  • Diomedea
  • Phoebastria
  • Phoebetria
  • Thalassarche[1]
Black-footed albatross.jpg
Black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes)

Albatrosses are any of the species of birds belonging to the taxonomic family Diomedeidae. These long winged sea birds soar over the ocean's waves, searching for their favorite foods like squid and fish. Albatrosses are the largest birds at sea and have captivated sailors attention since ancient times. Unless one is out on the oceans, it is very rare to see albatrosses on land, for these birds will only land to breed. They have special bills that allow them to get rid of excess salt in water; these bills closely relate them to shearwaters and petrels. [2] Albatrosses travel hundreds and hundreds of miles at a time searching for food and are masters of the air when it comes to energy conservation.

Body Design

Two wandering albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) on Albatross Island

Albatrosses have very long wings and large bodies. Their bills are hooked and they possess separate raised tubular nostrils. Their bodies range from sizes between 76 and 122 centimeters long (2.5 to 4 feet); and their wingspan ranges from 3 to 6 meters across(9.8 to 19.7 feet). The wings are usually darkly colored on the upper side and are pale colors or white on the underside. Albatross wings allow it to take advantage of the abundant winds across the surface of the sea. The birds make use of the fact that friction with the sea slows some of the wind down so that right above the surface of the water, the wind is relatively weak and slow. Then, as the bird climbs up from the surface, the speed and strength of the wind increases as well (around 50 feet or 15 meters above the surface of the water the albatrosses will reach their full flight speed).[2]

Albatrosses' wings are designed for a specified type of gliding. Being very long and somewhat thin in width, the wings are used best in the albatrosses' cycle of flight. This cycle allows the bird to move great distances without once flapping it wings. To start the cycle, the albatross descends from around 50 feet (15 meters) above the surface of the sea to right above the water, it then swings sharply into the wind and moves back upwards to around 50 feet (15 meters). Albatrosses repeat this cycle endlessly and do it with great precision. For the maneuvers only work at high speeds and the birds must have sufficient penetration when it turns, enabling movements against the wind. The cycle consists of around a 128 yard (118 meter) downwind glide and around a 180 yard (166 meter) upwind glide in each cycle. With strong winds the albatross can travel a continuous 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour). They weigh-in around 6.8 to 9 kilograms (15 to 20 pounds).[2]

There are three main types of plumage albatrosses exhibit: an all-white adult plumage with dark wingtips; a white body with a dark back, brow, upper-wing and tail; or a more-or-less uniformly dark plumage, sometimes indicating a juvenile of a species that will get its first plumage later on. The bills of albatrosses are composed of distinctively colored and shaped horny plates. The somewhat long and sturdy legs can be found in the middle of the body. These legs allow albatrosses to stand upright and walk relatively easily. At the end of the legs, webbed toes prevail. These toes enable to bird to swim on the water's surface and take shallow dives to grab food (they do not dive far under the surface). [2]

Life Cycle

Black-browed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) with chick.

Being large birds, albatrosses have a very long egg incubation periods. The females lay one large egg with a coarse white shell. Southern species lay this egg on top of a nest of compacted dirt and vegetation. These nests are around 24 inches (61 centimeters) across and 18 inches (45 centimeters) high and have a hollow cup on its top. On the other hand, the northern species lay their egg right on the bare ground with no nest. One example is the Royal albatross, this species has an incubation period of about 80 days. [2]

Once the young albatross hatches, it is covered in long down feathers and is fed by the parents by regurgitation. The regurgitated meal consists of half-digested food (often squid) and oils secreted by adults' stomachs. The chicks are immediately surrounded by many of its kind. Within the breeding colonies, which are located right near water usually on oceanic islands, rock stacks or cliffs, the parents will care for their chick. The birds will defend their immediate vicinity, but other than that are not territorial. The albatross chick becomes very fat towards the end of its growth period and can weigh in at around 10 kilograms (22.05 pounds) but will lose some off the weight before fledging so that it can fly with ease. The chick is guarded when its young by one parent but later on is left alone for long periods of time while its parents are out looking for food on the ocean. Depending on the size of the species, the chicks will fledge around four and nine times a month. Through this process the young birds acquire the feathers they need for flight.[2]

Once a chick grows mature enough to acquire its own food, it will head out to sea. At sea, albatrosses are silent and undemonstrative, they soar endlessly back and forth or around ships, occasionally resting on the surface of the water. When albatrosses are young, they will not return to breeding places until they reach the ages between five and ten years. Then they will start to form huge, scattered breeding colonies on the flatter areas of oceanic islands or cliffs. [2]


Light-mantled sooty albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) resting.

Albatrosses are pelagic and can not be found on land except at their breeding places and exceptionally after brutal storms.[2] Nine species of albatross are found in the Southern Ocean and adjacent seas.[2] Most of these breed on islands near the Antarctic and some off southern South America, New Zealand, and southeast Australia, with one species frequenting on the eastern tropical Pacific and breeding on the Galapagos Islands, and three more species live in the North Pacific breeding on the central archipelagos.[2] All of the albatross species disperse widely from where they are born, travelling especially far when they are younger.[2] Albatross's diets mainly consist of large squid seized at sea, some fish, and various invertebrates.[2] The hunting of squid may occur often during the hours of the night because the food is closest to the surface.[2] Large amounts of albatross along with other sea birds can be seen flying around fishing boats and fishing trawlers waiting to scavenge off the excess food.[2] They do so because of the abundance of marine life around the vessels and its very easy for the birds to obtain the meals they need for themselves and their chicks. Albatrosses in these packed groups are usually noted off South Africa and New Zealand.[2]

The Albatross and its Name

In history, the killing of an albatross was thought to bring bad luck upon a ship and its crew. Albatrosses were believed to be wandering souls, and they amaze and bewilder seamen.[3] Although there was a great deal of superstition surrounding the birds, sailors sometimes resorted to killing the birds and eating them, and on occasion the webbed feet were made into purses.[3] The common name "albatross" emanates from the Arabic al-qudus, which means "bucket".[3] The name may puzzle some, but albatrosses have been known by this because they can hold water in their bills, somewhat similar to pelicans.[3] Al-qudus later became alcatraz which in Spanish now means "gannet".[3] These words eventually were paired with the Latin word alba which means "white", and since most albatrosses are mainly white in color, the change to "albatross" was made.[3] Albatrosses belong to the order Procellariiformes, this word comes from the Latin word procella, which refers to a violent storm.[3] These birds spent a great deal of time at sea and encounter many violent storms throughout their lives. Diomedeiae, the albatross family, is named after Diomedes, the King of Aetolia who fought in the Trojan War.[3] Legend has it that Diomedes stopped on an Adriatic island on his way home from the war. The story goes along and says that some of his companions were punished for their complaining and were turned into birds that looked like white swans.[3] These birds were then named after Diomedes's men; the name given was Diomedea exulans meaning "homeless"[3]




  1. Procellariiformes. Wikispecies. Web. Accessed January 30, 2012. Author Unknown
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 Perrins, Christopher. Harrison, C.J.O. Birds Switzerland: Elsevier Publishing Projects S.A., Lausanne, 1976. 182-184. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Wells, Diana. 100-Birds-and-How-They-Got-Their-Names. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books Of Chapel Hill, 2002. 1-3. USA.