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09/05/2007

A Faithful Bird

When it comes to the marriage vows “… in sickness and in
health, for better for worse…” I feel that my generation took
those phrases quite seriously. Perhaps it’s the media’s emphasis
on the antics of celebrities that make it seem as though today
many individuals pop in and out of relationships without
hesitation. Regular readers might guess that my concern with
commitment is spurred by my caregiver role after my wife’s
back surgery a month ago. Would you believe that she had
another back surgery last week in an attempt to relieve severe
sciatic pain following the first surgery! We’re keeping fingers
crossed that the apparent success of the second surgery in
relieving that pain continues.

When it comes to commitment, I was fascinated by an article in
the September issue of the Smithsonian magazine concerning a
very unusual bird. The article by Kennedy Warne is titled “The
Amazing Albatrosses” and they are indeed amazing. There are a
number of different albatross species, the most spectacular being
the wandering and royal albatrosses with wingspans of ten feet or
more. Albatrosses can glide for great distances without flapping
their wings and may spend as many as six years of their early
lives without touching land. You’ve probably seen the movie or
nature programs about penguins going off to find food for
extended periods, swimming like fish under water. The albatross
isn’t a swimmer but has to rely on finding squid and fish in the
upper few feet of the ocean.

The article cites work by Jean-Claude Stahl of the Museum of
New Zealand on the Buller albatross, which breeds on the Snares
Islands south of the South Island of New Zealand. After leaving
the nest and spending the first six years of their life at sea so to
speak, they return to the islands to begin the search for their
lifelong partner. The tabloids would not have the patience to
follow the process of pairing up – it may take four years! The
females are the ones who start to choose their mates after being
ashore for a couple of years, at about age 8. The author likens
the first stage in the process to singles bars. The birds get
together in groups, where the gals begin to size up the various
prospects.

Sometime in their third year ashore, the males make a move by
staking out a nesting site and the females start their serious
winnowing down of suitors by inspecting the males who’ve
staked out their properties. The speculation is that the females
watch closely to see how many days the males spend ashore
between flights to find food. Those males that spend more time
ashore would seem to be the ones most skilled at finding food,
allowing them extra land time. Not until the 4th year ashore does
the female finally make her choice; the pairing for the Buller
albatross is almost always a lifetime commitment and albatrosses
may live for 50 years. Only 4 percent choose new partners.

Once the choice is made, you might think the devoted couple
would consummate the union without further ado. But no, not
until the fifth year do they finally attempt the breeding routine. I
gather that the female has to put on enough weight to trigger the
breeding instinct and return to the colony to mate. It’s not
certain an egg will result – that depends on the local food supply.
If successful, only one egg is produced.

Once the lone chick is hatched, it sits on the nest waiting
patiently for the parents to set out on prolonged “fishing” flights
to find food for their offspring. The chick matures very slowly,
an adaptation to lower the need for food commensurate with the
long absences of the parents. Everything seems to be in slow
motion for these birds. No fast foods, that’s for sure. Royal
albatross chicks may spend nine months on the nest before taking
flight to find their own food. Meanwhile the parents are so
exhausted by their food-supplying task that they skip a year
before trying again to produce another chick.

The period of adolescence is also a long one. For wandering
albatrosses, it’s a dozen years or so, during which time the young
ones learn the times and sources of food in the oceans. The very
low rate of reproduction can be a real problem. Any introduction
of a foreign predator, the loss of a parent to getting trapped or
killed in commercial fishing rigs or storms that wash away the
nests or the like all make life precarious. Most of the albatross
species are now classified as endangered, mostly due to losses
due to the fishing equipment. Especially in New Zealand,
commercial fishermen are taking measures to reduce the toll on
the albatross population. Let’s hope this magnificent bird
survives.

Well, it’s time to check up on my mate in the hospital. The
albatross isn’t the only old bird that knows about commitment!

Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

09/05/2007

A Faithful Bird

When it comes to the marriage vows “… in sickness and in
health, for better for worse…” I feel that my generation took
those phrases quite seriously. Perhaps it’s the media’s emphasis
on the antics of celebrities that make it seem as though today
many individuals pop in and out of relationships without
hesitation. Regular readers might guess that my concern with
commitment is spurred by my caregiver role after my wife’s
back surgery a month ago. Would you believe that she had
another back surgery last week in an attempt to relieve severe
sciatic pain following the first surgery! We’re keeping fingers
crossed that the apparent success of the second surgery in
relieving that pain continues.

When it comes to commitment, I was fascinated by an article in
the September issue of the Smithsonian magazine concerning a
very unusual bird. The article by Kennedy Warne is titled “The
Amazing Albatrosses” and they are indeed amazing. There are a
number of different albatross species, the most spectacular being
the wandering and royal albatrosses with wingspans of ten feet or
more. Albatrosses can glide for great distances without flapping
their wings and may spend as many as six years of their early
lives without touching land. You’ve probably seen the movie or
nature programs about penguins going off to find food for
extended periods, swimming like fish under water. The albatross
isn’t a swimmer but has to rely on finding squid and fish in the
upper few feet of the ocean.

The article cites work by Jean-Claude Stahl of the Museum of
New Zealand on the Buller albatross, which breeds on the Snares
Islands south of the South Island of New Zealand. After leaving
the nest and spending the first six years of their life at sea so to
speak, they return to the islands to begin the search for their
lifelong partner. The tabloids would not have the patience to
follow the process of pairing up – it may take four years! The
females are the ones who start to choose their mates after being
ashore for a couple of years, at about age 8. The author likens
the first stage in the process to singles bars. The birds get
together in groups, where the gals begin to size up the various
prospects.

Sometime in their third year ashore, the males make a move by
staking out a nesting site and the females start their serious
winnowing down of suitors by inspecting the males who’ve
staked out their properties. The speculation is that the females
watch closely to see how many days the males spend ashore
between flights to find food. Those males that spend more time
ashore would seem to be the ones most skilled at finding food,
allowing them extra land time. Not until the 4th year ashore does
the female finally make her choice; the pairing for the Buller
albatross is almost always a lifetime commitment and albatrosses
may live for 50 years. Only 4 percent choose new partners.

Once the choice is made, you might think the devoted couple
would consummate the union without further ado. But no, not
until the fifth year do they finally attempt the breeding routine. I
gather that the female has to put on enough weight to trigger the
breeding instinct and return to the colony to mate. It’s not
certain an egg will result – that depends on the local food supply.
If successful, only one egg is produced.

Once the lone chick is hatched, it sits on the nest waiting
patiently for the parents to set out on prolonged “fishing” flights
to find food for their offspring. The chick matures very slowly,
an adaptation to lower the need for food commensurate with the
long absences of the parents. Everything seems to be in slow
motion for these birds. No fast foods, that’s for sure. Royal
albatross chicks may spend nine months on the nest before taking
flight to find their own food. Meanwhile the parents are so
exhausted by their food-supplying task that they skip a year
before trying again to produce another chick.

The period of adolescence is also a long one. For wandering
albatrosses, it’s a dozen years or so, during which time the young
ones learn the times and sources of food in the oceans. The very
low rate of reproduction can be a real problem. Any introduction
of a foreign predator, the loss of a parent to getting trapped or
killed in commercial fishing rigs or storms that wash away the
nests or the like all make life precarious. Most of the albatross
species are now classified as endangered, mostly due to losses
due to the fishing equipment. Especially in New Zealand,
commercial fishermen are taking measures to reduce the toll on
the albatross population. Let’s hope this magnificent bird
survives.

Well, it’s time to check up on my mate in the hospital. The
albatross isn’t the only old bird that knows about commitment!

Allen F. Bortrum