19 Jun 2020

Why we’re celebrating the first ever World Albatross Day

Today, BirdLife is delighted to be part of the first ever World Albatross Day. But why is it so important that we raise awareness of this group of birds? Find out what makes them special, the threats they face, and how you can help.

Tristan Albatrosses performing their courtship dance © Nick Holmes / RSPB
Tristan Albatrosses performing their courtship dance © Nick Holmes / RSPB
By Jessica Law

You may have seen a lot of environmental “days” in the media, dedicated to raising awareness of important issues both broad and specific: World Environment Day, World Oceans Day, and even World Curlew Day. But there has never before been a World Albatross Day. So why, in 2020, are we promoting a day dedicated to this particular group of birds?

Bird lovers and conservationists may already know the amazing life story of the albatross, and why they need our help so desperately. But we think this issue is too big to stay within the realm of the environmental sector. World Albatross Day, launched by ACAP and supported by the conservation community, is the perfect opportunity to spread our message to the wider public – some of whom may not know much about albatrosses at all.

So, what do most people already know about these majestic seabirds? Some people may simply consider them particularly large seagulls. Some people may even have negative associations, thanks to the albatross being a source of bad luck in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In fact, an “albatross” is a common English idiom for a burden that follows someone their whole life. Before the poem became popular, however, albatrosses used to be considered good luck, showing just how effective the power of popular media can be.

Others may be aware of their incredible size and world-class endurance. The Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans (Vulnerable) has the largest known wingspan of any bird – a whopping 3.5 metres. Albatrosses can cover 16,000 kilometres in a single foraging trip. But these statistics only scratch the surface of the lives of these incredible birds.

What popular culture doesn’t tell us is that albatrosses are a long-lived, extremely devoted parents. They usually mate for life, finding one partner and returning to them year after year, interspersed by long stretches wandering alone at sea. They can live more than 60 years, and many don’t breed until they are ten years old. When courting, they perform breath-taking mating dances that they may have practiced for years to perfect. These dances differ between species: Laysan Albatrosses Phoebastria immutabilis (Near Threatened) bob up and down in perfect synchrony, emitting an unearthly whistle. The Wandering Albatross spreads its prodigious wings, raises its head to the heavens and screams at the top of its lungs: an activity known as “skycalling”.

 

Watch the courtship dance of the Laysan Albatross below

 

Steph Prince, BirdLife International Marine Project Manager, describes an unforgettable encounter with dancing Wandering Albatrosses on Bird Island, South Georgia:

“Sitting amongst the tussock grass, I watched at least a dozen Wandering Albatrosses in pairs tapping their bills together, swaying and throwing open their gigantic wings in their mesmerising courtship ritual. Then I felt a smack on the back of my head, and a huge white wing came into sight as a male wandering albatross walked straight past me, wings outstretched, ready to begin his routine. He didn’t even seem to notice me sitting in the grass, but I certainly won’t be forgetting my foray into world of dancing albatrosses…”

The growth of their single youngster is equally leisurely. Some of these explosively fluffy chicks take an entire year to leave the nest, meaning their parents need to take a year off to recover, only breeding every two years. Sadly, in modern times this “live slow, die old” approach, which had been working well for millennia, now makes them particularly vulnerable to human activity. Today, many of their chicks and eggs are eaten by invasive species introduced by humans to islands that would otherwise have no predatory mammals – a threat they have not evolved to defend themselves from.

But by far the biggest threat to albatrosses is industrial fishing. Albatrosses’ far-ranging foraging behaviour puts them in the path of fishing vessels around the world, where thousands of albatrosses meet their end accidentally caught in fishing equipment when diving for bait or fish discards. The rate of “bycatch” is so high that albatrosses cannot replenish their populations quickly enough. Today, 15 of the world’s 22 albatross species are on the brink of extinction.

Hope is at hand, however. In 2005, BirdLife and the RSPB jointly launched the Albatross Task Force: an international team of experts working alongside governments, communities and fishers on board vessels to introduce pioneering bycatch prevention methods. Informed by science, we have changed fishing laws across the world and transformed some of the world’s worst fisheries for bycatch into seabird-friendly enterprises. Partners across the BirdLife Partnership are also launching island restoration projects to remove invasive species and reinstate the natural balance of their breeding habitats.

 

Watch the Albatross Task Force's video below

 

“Albatrosses are truly amazing birds on so many different levels,” says Nina da Rocha, Albatross Task Force Project Officer. “Sadly, they are in real trouble and facing a conservation crisis as the result of human activities.  The good news is that we already know what needs to be done to turn things around for them.  As we celebrate World Albatross Day for the first time, let’s come together as a global community and commit to working together to save these magnificent ocean wanderers!”

With your help, we can do even more. Follow and share our message using #WorldAlbatrossDay and support BirdLife’s marine programme here. Together, we can transform the public’s idea of albatrosses and turn their sad story into one of hope.