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Black-footed albatrosses commute 6,000 miles round-trip to find food for their babies. - Dick Cronberg

Epic commute of the black-footed albatross

Few enjoy the morning commute. There are drivers on cell phones drifting along 10 miles per hour below the speed limit, traffic lights that conspire against you, and the school bus that stops every 100 yards to pick up one more eager student. Before you complain too much, consider the commute of the black-footed albatross.

The temperate oceans of the world and those closer to the poles are inhabited by a wide range of pelagic birds — from shearwaters and petrels to fulmars and storm-petrels. The largest are the albatrosses. There are between 14 and 23 species depending upon whose DNA data you consider. The largest are the wandering and royal albatrosses, with wingspans up to 11 feet across.

Impressive birds.

They ride the winds of the oceans on motionless wings in search of squid or fish or even a dead whale to feed upon.

The most common albatross off the Oregon Coast is the black-footed albatross. It is largely chocolate brown with a respectable 7-foot wingspan. To see one you will have to take a boat ride, for they seldom approach land. Birders with strong stomachs enjoy pelagic trips 10 to 20 miles offshore to see them and the other birds that live here.

For many years it was thought that the albatrosses off the Oregon Coast were mostly young birds cruising the world. They breed for the first time at the age of four.

The waters off our coast teem with all sorts of good things to eat. Deep ocean water comes to the surface as upwellings, bringing abundant nutrients. Add sunlight to this broth and you get a riot of growth. What a great place to spend your youth before returning to the outer Hawaiian Islands to breed.

Well, it took satellites to show us that we didn't have the story quite right.

Researchers attached transmitters to some birds and tracked them by satellite. They were stunned by what they found.

A great many of the birds off the Oregon Coast are proud parents of roly-poly gooney birds basking in the tropical sun of Laysan or Midway Island. That's about 3,000 miles from Brookings. What an incredible commute.

The round trip takes a parent about two weeks. They fly to our coast, fill up on fish and squid, reduce the food to something resembling a couple of quarts of motor oil in their gut and return to feed this brew to their children on a white sand beach. With two parents this means a young albatross is fed about once a week. And there's no day care.

We should have known. Tropical oceans are noted for their clarity. This is because relatively little grows in tropical waters. It would be very difficult to rear a young bird having to rely on fishing the tropical seas. If an albatross wants a full stomach, it has to travel to the rich, cold waters near the fringes of the continents at higher latitudes.

I still find it difficult to believe it's possible to successfully raise young when you have a 6,000-mile commute. Consider even one road trip to Disneyworld in Florida and back, much less repeating the trip every two weeks for 11 months each year.

Now what were you saying about your commute?

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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