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Heidi Auman

Midway Atoll
U.S. Nature Refuge

How do you get close to the birds without their feeling afraid of you?

These albatross living on Midway Atoll are very special.  They have lived on this tiny atoll for many thousands of years without any land-based predators that could hurt them.  Therefore, they have lost the instinct to be afraid of anything approaching them on land, including humans.  It is almost magical to be able to approach a huge bird like an albatross and not have them fly away, but we must also be responsible in our behaviour as well.  As a researcher, I try very hard not to cause them any distress, and give them their peace and quiet if possible.

What are albatross's favourite diets?

Laysan albatross eat mainly squid but also some fish.  Black-footed albatross eat mainly the eggs from flying fish, but also eat many kinds of fish as well.

What's your favourite bird?

I have many favourite birds.  I do love albatross very much because they are so majestic and fly so gracefully.  I also love loons, which are black and white diving birds from the northern part of the United States (where I grew up).  My favourite Australian bird is the kookaburra because this bird makes me smile whenever I hear its crazy laughing call.

What interesting research have you found on albatrosses?

I have discovered many distressing things from studying albatrosses.  When I performed necropsies (which is an animal autopsy) on dead birds, I found that most were full of plastic junk that they eat accidentally from the surface of the ocean.  Sometimes I find toothbrushes, plastic cigarette lighters, toys, medical debris and plastic gloves!  This marine debris can cause many problems for the birds, especially chicks.  The main problem is that the chicks feel full and won't accept any more food from their parents, when in fact they are full of plastic junk!  I have also found that the albatross nesting on Midway, although they live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, have high concentrations of toxic chemicals in them.  This is very bad news because it shows that our man-made contaminants have found their way around the world and are affecting even remote species such as albatross.

What makes Midway Islands home to albatrosses?

I don't think we can ever be sure about exactly why some albatross species live on Midway Atoll, but a very long time ago, these birds must have found these tiny, isolated islands a very safe place to lay their eggs and raise their chicks.  There were no predators here originally, so the chances of raising their chicks successfully were much higher than other locations.

How do albatrosses find or choose their partners?

Believe it or not, albatross choose their partners by how well they dance!  The young albatross, which are 3-7 years old, like to dance with each other.  This is a specific dance complete with bobbing, head under wing tucking, bill clacking, whinnying, and mooing with heads pointed to the sky.  It is very entertaining to watch, but the birds need to practice this dance for years until they get good enough to dance it perfectly and in step with a bird of the different sex.  After this, the birds get to the business of making a nest, laying and incubating an egg and raising a chick.  These birds tend to mate for life (which can be over 60 years!), but if a partner is lost, the remaining bird will have to dance again to find a new mate.

Do albatrosses help each other?  If yes, in what situations?

Albatross don’t tend to help each other at all.  The only exception is that both male and female of a breeding pair will both work very hard together to raise a chick.  It takes both adult birds to raise one chick per year.  If one parent dies, the other will not be able to raise the chick by itself and therefore the chick will starve.

How do parent-birds teach their chicks to fly?

Actually, they don't teach their chicks to fly.  The adults leave their chicks behind so that the young birds must learn to fly by themselves quickly or starve.  The chicks are helped by the wind and seem to understand instinctively what they must do.  They exercise their muscles for flight, run into the wind for short test flights, and eventually they will fly out to sea, not to return to Midway for at least 3-4 years!

Do albatrosses stay with their parents after leaving Midway Islands?

No.  The chicks will have to grow up without their parents to teach them how to find food over a huge ocean.  The parents also do not stay together during this time, but will meet in exactly the same area on Midway at the beginning of the next breeding season to raise a new chick.

What are human impacts on seabirds?  And how do the impacts influence the seabirds?

Unfortunately, humans have had a very negative impact on most seabirds, especially albatross.  Feather hunters once killed much of the albatross here in the early twentieth century to make hats for ladies.  The main current threats to this species are from long-lining and gillnet fisheries and also from marine debris, which is ingested or causes entanglement.  Lead paint from old buildings on Midway is also a cause of "droopwing", which eventually kills the chicks when they eat the flaking paint chips.  Air strikes with Navy aircraft and collisions with communication towers killed several thousand albatross on Midway in the 1960s.  These towers have been removed and aircraft flights to Midway are now allowed only after dark during the breeding season.  Tall trees on Midway continue to be a strike hazard, as albatross have little maneuverability with their long, thin wings.  Introduced weeds and trees are a current threat because they take over important open ground space for breeding birds.

What's your most favourite thing to do in your research?

My favourite part of research is the sense of wonder I experience when I am out with the birds.  The sense of awe, reverence or "WOW" fills me and I realize how lucky I am to do what I love to do.  I also love sharing my research with others so that they can also feel this wonder about our natural world, and also learn how to protect it.

What abilities does one need, if one wants to be an ornithologist?

It is helpful to be good in science to be an ornithologist, since there are so many science courses to complete for a degree.  Also, it helps to be organised, persistent and very hard working.  But I think the most important part of being an ornithologist is to love birds and want to protect them from various threats that impact them.

Do you have anything to tell or to advice all children around the world?

Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to follow your heart when it comes to choosing your path.  Do what fills you with joy and wonder, and be willing to work hard to accomplish this.  My favourite quote from Rumi states this, "Let the beauty we love be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."

Thank you very much for the time!

Thank you everyone for such wonderful questions – I’m glad I could be part of your assignment!

Imagiverse Educational Consortium sends our heartfelt thanks to Carol, Edward, Howard, Jack, Jackie, Jenny, Judy, Peggy, Peter, Steven, Sunny, and Winnie, our Imagiverse Student Ambassadors in Taiwan.  Those were indeed wonderful questions.  Great work!

- 3 March 2008


Last Updated:
8 January 2015

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