Laysan Albatross Life History

Habitat

Habitat OceansLaysan Albatrosses range across the northern Pacific Ocean from about the latitude of Costa Rica to the Aleutian Islands and southern Bering Sea. They tend to forage in colder, food-rich waters, although they have been found in waters ranging from about 35°F to 79°F. The birds nest on open, grassy or sandy expanses of islands—particularly Midway Atoll and Laysan Island (which together account for about 94 percent of breeding pairs), other small Hawaiian Islands, the larger islands of Kauai and Oahu, and a few sites off Mexico and Japan. Back to top

Food

Food FishLaysan Albatrosses eat mainly squid as well as fish eggs, crustaceans, floating carrion, and some discards from fishing boats. They feed by sitting on the water and plunging with their beaks to seize prey near the surface. Adults with chicks to feed take foraging trips that last up to 17 days and travel 1,600 miles away from their nest (straight-line distance). Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundFemales place their nests on sparsely vegetated ground, typically close to a small shrub if available.

Nest Description

On sandy islands such as Midway and Laysan, the female lies in the sand and scrapes out a hollow with her feet. By rotating around, she forms a circular depression, then gives the nest a low rim by assembling twigs, leaves, and sand picked up from the immediate area around the nest. On larger islands such as Kauai, Hawaii, the birds nest more often on grass or under trees and build the nest rim from leaf litter, ironwood needles, and twigs. The nest (including rim) is about 3 feet in diameter and a couple of inches deep. Often the female continues nest construction while incubation is under way.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1 egg
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:4.3 in (10.8 cm)
Egg Width:2.7 in (6.9 cm)
Incubation Period:62-66 days
Nestling Period:165 days
Egg Description:Creamy white with brown spotting.
Condition at Hatching:Covered in gray-white down giving a salt-and-pepper appearance; eyes are open; weighing about 7 ounces.
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Behavior

Behavior Soaring (seabird)The classic behavior of albatrosses is dynamic soaring—a flight style marked by very infrequent wingbeats and masterful soaring. The bird takes advantage of wind speed and direction changes at different heights to fly great distances with very slight alterations of their wing position. On the ground these big birds walk ponderously and usually have to run along the ground, into the wind, to be able to take off. Pairs tend to form lasting bonds. They return to the colony beginning in November, where they perform elaborate courtship displays. These include coordinated movements in which the birds touch bills, spread one or both wings, bob their heads, place their bill under one wing, and pause with their bill pointed at the sky. After mating, both birds leave the island, with the female returning first to lay a single egg. It can take up to a decade for a young albatross to successfully reproduce: 1-year-olds usually don’t return to the colony at all; 3- and 4-year-olds return to attempt breeding but usually are not successful until they are 9 or 10. They often breed in colonies alongside Black-footed Albatrosses. Introduced dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose threaten eggs, nestlings, and adult birds; on the water they are vulnerable to tiger sharks.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Restricted RangeLaysan Albatrosses are numerous, but as with all albatross species there are serious threats to their population, and this species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. A 2009 estimate put the global breeding population at about 591,000 pairs, or just under 1.2 million breeding adults, with more than 90% of the total breeding at just two sites: Midway Atoll and Laysan Island. Laysan Albatross rates a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists it as a Species of High Concern. In the early twentieth century hundreds of thousands of Laysan Albatrosses were hunted each year for their feathers. When feather hunting came to an end, in the early 1920s, the entire Laysan Albatross population was estimated at about 18,000 pairs. By the late 1950s it had rebounded to about 280,000 pairs and has doubled again since then, though it is still lower than pre-feather-hunting levels. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, albatrosses colonized Kauai and Oahu, and in 1983 they began nesting in small colonies on Mexican islands including Guadalupe Island. Fully 99 percent of Laysan Albatrosses nest on small, low-lying tropical islands, and these breeding areas will likely be submerged by rising sea levels as a result of climate change in this century—this is the major long-term threat to the Laysan Albatross. More immediate threats include introduced predators such as dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose; lead poisoning from paint chips on Midway, the largest single colony; bycatch in fisheries; and ingestion of plastics. Large losses occurred from gill nets and drift nets set to catch fish (drift netting killed up to 17,500 albatrosses per year, but ended in 1992). Longline fishing, in which ships tow many miles of line with baited hooks, still catches and kills thousands of albatrosses. Since the early 2000s, U.S. (Hawaii and Alaska) longliners have adopted fairly successful solutions to bycatch, but other nations’ longline fisheries have not. The oceans contain enormous amounts of floating plastic debris, which adults often pick up and feed to their chicks. This plastic can cause death by starvation or dehydration, puncture a bird’s digestive system, or leach harmful chemicals into their systems. Albatrosses take a long time to reach maturity and raise at most only one young per year, so populations take a long time to recover from any increases in adult death rates. Back to top

Credits

Awkerman, Jill A., David J. Anderson and G. Causey Whittow. 2009. Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Frings, H. and M. Frings. 1961. Some biometric studies on the albatrosses of Midway Atoll. Condor no. 63:304-312.

Gowen, F. C., J. M. Maley, C. Cicero, A. T. Peterson, B. C. Faircloth, T. C. Warr and J. E. McCormack. 2014. Speciation in Western Scrub-Jays, Haldane's rule, and genetic clines in secondary contact. BMC Evolutionary Biology no. 14:135.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA. 

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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