Hawai'i's Albatrosses - The Short-tailed Albatross

The Short-tailed Albatross (Diomedea albatrus) is the World's second rarest Albatross (Amsterdam Albatross is the rarest) and is confined to the North Pacific Ocean with its only present breeding sites on Tori-shima Island (Bird Island) in the Izu Islands, about 500 kilometres south of Tokyo in Japan and Minami-kojima Island. It should be noted that Tori-shima lies south of Tokyo, whereas Torishima Island lies to the NW of Japan and does not support Albatross populations.

Recent population estimates have indicated that there were 200 or so individuals remaining in 1991 and a present population in 2000 of c. 600 birds, with 500 of those on Tori-shima, and that the population is slowly increasing from the lowest population recorded thirty years ago. As an island nesting species the problems surrounding the Albatross population is a well-known one, and island extinctions are more common than continental ones. Of the seventy-eight known bird extinctions in the past 300 years, ninety-one percent have occurred within island species.

As with all Albatross, the Short-tailed is a large, long-winged species which forage at sea and only come to nest every 2 years or so. They are also long-lived with Albatross individuals regularly living into their 40's and 50's. The word Albatross is a corruption of the Portuguese alcatraz, which means Pelican. Apparently when fifteenth century Portuguese sailors saw these birds they called them Pelicans, as these were the only similar-sized birds that they recognised from North Atlantic waters.

Only three Albatross species are regular in the North Pacific - the Short-tailed Albatross, the Laysan Albatross and the Black-footed Albatross, although other species are sometimes recorded as vagrants, although Albatross find it hard to cross the Doldrums of the equator. However at least 4 species of Albatross have managed to pass into the Northern Hemisphere in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the years, with some returning yearly to seabird colonies, such as the Black-browed Albatross which returned to seabird nesting sites in Scotland for over 25 years.

The Short-tailed Albatross was discovered by George Steller during his travels with Commander Bering in Kamchatka and the Bering Sea in the 1740's. It was P.S. Pallas however who described the species in 1780 in the Spicilegia zoologica, his account of different species. During that period the species was more widespread and the range of the species included the China coast, Taiwan, Kamchatka, the Bering Sea ice edge as far as the Arctic Ocean, and the Pacific coast of North America as far south as Baja California. Sightings were recorded as far south as 10 degrees north latitude, although apparently records are clouded by the fact that Laysan Albatross was not described until the nineteenth century. It must be speculated that for a species such as the Laysan Albatross to be described after the Short-tailed Albatross the population of Short-tails must have been in the same magnitude as Laysan at the time, a far cry from todays population.

Interestingly, bones recovered from prehistoric North American dwellings have been found in California, Oregon and Alaska and in the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Island. In the Aleutians they were apparently speared from boats and kayaks. They obviously played an important dietary role in human populations and the numbers occurring must have been large enough to survive the onslaught. Recent studies have shown that Laysan Albatross bones only occurred in later layers. It is suspected that Laysan Albatross only moved in once the Short-tailed population had been much reduced.

Also recent research by Olsen and Hearty (2003) shows that the species also once nested in the Atlantic: "Albatrosses (Diomedeidae) do not occur in the North Atlantic Ocean today except as vagrants, although five species were present in the early Pliocene. No fossil breeding sites of albatrosses were known previously. The timing of extinction of albatrosses in the North Atlantic was likewise unknown. Deposits that formed near present-day sea level along the southeastern shore of Bermuda contain remains of a former breeding colony and include intact eggshells and bones of embryos, juveniles, and adults of Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus), a critically endangered species now confined to a few islets in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. These deposits are correlated with the middle Pleistocene Lower Town Hill Formation, which at other sites have a radiometric age of 405,000 years ago. This equates with the marine isotope stage 11 interglacial, which culminated in a rise in sea-level to >+20 m. Bones of a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross were also found in beach deposits at +21.3 m from this same interglacial. We interpret the extirpation of albatrosses on Bermuda as probably resulting from lack of nesting sites protected from storm surges over the little emergent land that remained at the height of the marine isotope stage 11 sea level rise."

The full research paper on the occurrence of the species in the Atlantic can be found at the following site:

Fig.1. Former range of the Short-tailed Albatross included the Ryukyu Islands.

Before its decline the population was known or suspected to nest in the southern Izu Islands, the northern Bonins, the southern Ryukyaus, the Pescadores and the Daitos. The main population was Tori-shima Island in the southern Izus. Tori-shima is a volcanic cone which is two kilometres in diameter and rises to four hundred feet above sea level. Four colonies were known on the island (as well as Black-footed Albatross) and these covered up to ten hectares. Most of the time the island was left alone and not visited by humans, although occasional trips were made to collect marine resources by whaling and fishing vessels. In 1887 however the South Seas Trading Company established a settlement on the island of some fifty Japanese labourers for the purpose of killing Albatross.

Albatross provided a range of products, from feathers for stuffing to fat used for food and fertilizer, and the tameness of birds during the nesting season earned them a reputation as an easy kill, reflected in the Japanese name given to them aho-dori or fool birds, and hundreds were killed by each person every day. The eggs were also harvested for food.

In 1903 the harvest and slaughter was continuing until the volcano erupted during the non-breeding season and the entire human population was killed. It has been estimated by Yamashina (an eminent Japanese ornithologist) that by this time five million Short-tails had been collected. The Island was recolonised almost straight away but there are few records between 1903 and 1930 as to what was happening to the Albatross population although by 1932 it was estimated that only a few thousand birds remained, a terrible indictment of the continuing harvesting programs of the Japanese, which seems to be to collect everything until nothing is left.

That year the Japanese government began to formulate plans for a ban on hunting at Tori-shima for ten years to try to recover the population, however the inhabitants of the Island anticipated the legislation and decimated the remaining population by taking 3000 birds in December 1932 and January 1933. By April of 1934 only around 100 birds returned to Tori-shima. Cattle were being grazed on the breeding grounds and this affected the nesting birds too. Black-footed Albatross on the Island were less affected as their feathers were considered less valuable and their nesting grounds tended to be in the more inaccessible swampy areas.

In 1939 another volcanic eruption buried the remaining Short-tails nesting site under ten feet of lava and a further eruption in 1941 destroyed the mooring area, making landing almost impossible. In World War two the island became an aircraft lookout base and in 1946 a weather station was constructed there. Oliver Austin stated that he thought the Short-tail was probably extinct in 1949 and said "the chances that any of these fine birds remain alive today are remote indeed... Steller's (Short-tailed) Albatross has become one of the more recent victims of man's thoughtlessness and greed". On Bonin Island, which was declared a preserve in 1926, itinerant fishermen destroyed the breeding nucleus and the population was wiped out.

Thankfully Austin's prediction was premature and in 1954 weather station personnel reported a few pairs breeding. Since 1954 numbers have slowly but steadily increased, helped undoubtedly by the long periods spent at sea by the species before returning to nest. Studies of Laysan and Black-footed Albatross have revealed that about fourteen percent of birds are at sea during the breeding season.

Harrison (1979) states on the biology of the species: " The first breeding adults arrive at Torishima (sic) each year in early September, their numbers increasing to a maximum by the end of October. Their arrival is thus six weeks sooner than that of the Black-footed Albatross and eight weeks sooner than that of the Laysan Albatross, which breeds on Midway Island. At the time of arrival, the adult birds are extremely fat, having built up reserves during the North pacific summer. these birds are especially concentrated at sea within ten kilometres of Torishima (sic) during the breeding season. Adult birds which have previously bred return to nearly the identical location each year and pair up with their mates of the preceding years. Albatrosses in the North Pacific are monogamous, "divorce" being very rare. The nests of the Short-tail are built in open space and, unlike Black-foot on Torishima (sic), are not found in the reed fields. Nests are reconstructed or built by both sexes. They are nearly two feet in diameter and fashioned with the bill using soil softened by rain and mixed with grasses, mosses, and roots. The annual renovations are cumulative, and the older mounds become particularly large.

Courtship involves an elaborate and stereotyped series of displays, postures, dances, squawks, bows, scrapes, bill snaps, and nasal groans which characterise all albatross species and have earned for them the name "gooney birds". A large single yellow-white egg with a strongly textured shell is laid in November. Both sexes share incubation chores, and each mate is away from the nest for days at a time. In January, some eight weeks after laying, a pale black, downy chick pips the shell and hatches.

Fig. 2 & 3. Short-tailed Albatross (Diomedea albatrus), immature, 26 Oct. 1998, Cordell Bank, MRN 1998-179.

© 1998 Bert McKee

These photographs accompanied records which had been submitted to and accepted by the California Rare Bird Committee.

Note the large pink bill and dark plumage of this bird, typical of the species in immature plumages. The bird would also have exhibited pale legs (dark in Black-footed Albatross).

The young are fed a yellow, vile-smelling stomach oil, which is found in all species of the order Procellariformes. They also receive semi-digested whole food, including unknown species of shrimp, fish and squid. The colony at this time reeks from a pungent combination of rotting food items, which are too large for the young to ingest, and the uric acid typical of all seabird colonies. One third to one half of the hatched chicks do not survive to fledge, dying from such natural causes as starvation, ticks and other parasites, and being preyed upon by the indigenous crows on Torishima.

By mid-March, adult Short-tailed Albatrosses can be observed north in the Commander Islands, indicating that either unsuccessful breeders or non-breeding adults leave the colony early. Adults molt in May or June, and both adults and fledglings begin leaving Torishima (sic) in early June. Chicks tend to depart at night with favorable winds. (In the nineteenth century, the June waters surrounding the colony were covered with inexperienced young birds; and it is possible that sharks preyed upon them as they do today on Black-footed and Laysan Albatross in the northwest Hawaiian Islands). By mid-July the colony is deserted. Young birds at sea will take three to four years to attain full adult plumage and will not breed until they are seven or eight years old. During the non-breeding season both adult and sub-adult birds scatter throughout the North Pacific, settling to the surface to rest or to consume food".

Fig.4. Tori-Shima Island, south of Japan. The largest population of Short-tailed Albatross occurs on the Island, with some 500 birds estimated to be currently present. The ever-present threat of a volcanic eruption could wipe out the entire breeding grounds.

Today Short-tailed Albatross are only found nesting on Tori-shima Island and Minami-kojima. Tori-shima remains hard to land on and is characterised by areas of hot and sulphurous areas. Lawrence Tickell estimated that in 1977 - 1978 200 birds were present on the Island. In 2000, 500 birds were estimated to survive.

On Minami-kojima, in the Senkaku Islands, birds nest on a cliff and numbered 12 adults in 1971, but breeding was not confirmed until 1988 when chicks were seen. A population of 75 was estimated in 1991 with 15 breeding pairs. Grass transplanting on Tori-shima has helped to stabilise the ground at the nesting sites and proposals for sulphur mining on the island were refused by the Japanese government. On Midway (NW Hawaiian Islands) a single incubating bird was present in 1993, but the egg was abandoned.

At sea Short-tails may be encountered anywhere in the North Pacific with annual reports from Alaska and the northeast Pacific, although the small numbers of birds remaining makes sightings few and far between. There is only one record of a bird being sighted from the Main Hawaiian Islands, a bird reported (on one day) on the ground amongst Laysan Albatross at the west end of Kaua'i in 1999.

The best chance of seeing a Short-tailed Albatross today is to visit Midway in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands where up to three visit during the winter months. Birds are usually seen singly, and unfortunately in different areas and they seem reluctant to pair up, despite efforts by island staff to bring two birds together. In 2001-2002 however it was reported that two birds had paired up and were incubating an egg. It will be extremely interesting to see what the outcome of this is - only the second known nesting of Short-tailed Albatross in Hawai'i and the 2nd nesting outside of Japan since the 1920's.

Fig.5. Short-tailed Albatross, Midway Atoll, Winter 1999-2000.


COLLAR, N.J., M.J. Crosby and A.J. Stattersfield. 1994. Birds to Watch 2. The World List of Threatened Birds. Birdlife International, U.K.

HARRISON, C. 1979. Short-tailed Albatross - Vigil over Torishima Island. In Oceans 12:5, pp. 24-26.

HARRISON, C.G. 1990. Seabirds of Hawai'i. Natural History and Conservation. Cornell University Press. New York.

HARRISON, P. 1983. Seabirds - An Identification Guide. Helm, Kent.

HARRISON, P. 1987. Seabirds of the World - A photographic guide. Helm, London.

HASEGAWA, H. 1984. Status and conservation of seabirds in Japan, with special attention to the Short-tailed Albatross. Pp. 487-500 in J.P. Croxall, P.G.H. Evans and R. Schreiber, eds. Status and conservation of the World's seabirds. Cambridge, U.K. ICBP Tch. Pub. #2.

HASEGAWA, H. 1991. Red Data Bird: Short-tailed Albatross. World Birdwatch 13(2):10.

OLSEN, S and P.J. HEARTY. 2003. Probable extirpation of a breeding colony of Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) on Bermuda by Pleistocene sea-level rise. PNAS 2003;100 12825-12829.

RICHARDSON, S.A. 1994. Status of the Short-tailed Albatross on Midway Atoll. In 'Elepaio 54.

TICKELL,W. L. N. 1997. Albatrosses. Pica Press, U.K.

WARHAM. 1998. The Behaviour, Population Biology and Physiology of the Petrels. Pica, U.K.

Christian Melgar. Worthing, West Sussex, UK. 2002.

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