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The Albatross Bird, Diomedea exulans



Far away in the desolate South Seas there lives a large and beautiful bird called the albatross, the giant member of the petrel family. The wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) is the largest of its tribe. Specimens have been captured measuring four feet in length, and with an expanse of wing from ten to fourteen feet. The body of this bird is very large, its neck is short and stout, and its head is armed with a powerful hooked beak from six to eight inches long. It is snowy, glistening white, its long wing-feathers tipped with black.

Its mighty strength of wing renders it the admiration of all navigators, who fitly name it the lord of the stormy seas. In the desolate regions where it lives the sailors hail its appearance with delight, as it comes sailing around the ship with majestic, careless flight, rising, sinking, now swooping down to seize some cast-off mouthful of food, now poising high above the mast-head, moving with the ship at the most rapid speed, and yet with scarcely a perceptible movement of its gigantic wings.

In storm or calm the albatross is master of the wind and waves. Sailors, straining every nerve to guide the laboring, struggling ship through tempestuous seas, look up, and see far above their heads the albatross calmly breasting the gale, its majesty unruffled, and its great out-stretched wings as motionless as on a still, sunny day. Its strength of flight is marvellous, and is said to be superior to that of any other bird. Sailors have captured these royal inhabitants of southern polar regions, and marked their glistening breasts with spots of tar, that they might distinguish them and determine their power of endurance; and in several instances the same bird has followed a ship under full sail, before the wind, for seven days and longer, circling round and round, and apparently taking no rest, its sharp eye always watchful for any refuse of food cast overboard by the sailors.

The albatross is very voracious, and easily caught, as it is neither cunning nor shy. As it lives in desolation, and has little to do with men, it knows nothing of trickery, nor dreams of the plots laid against its royal freedom. An interesting account is given of the capture of an albatross by an officer of a French ship. It was a sunny, windy day, and the vessel was speeding along near the dreary Tierra del Fuego, when a great shadow like a cloud passed over the deck. On looking up, the officer saw an immense albatross, its white breast glistening like snow, floating aloft with wide-spread wings. Wishing to examine the bird more closely, he gave orders for its capture. Fastening a piece of fat pork to a strong hook attached to a line, a sailor threw it overboard, and allowed full forty yards of cord to run out. The albatross soon descried the tempting morsel, and sweeping down in graceful circles to seize it, was soon securely hooked. The only show of resistance it made to being drawn on board was to extend its wings, and utter loud discordant cries. Once on deck, its grace and majesty vanished. It showed no fear, and the hook, still fastened in its beak, did not seem to annoy it; but no landsman could have been more awkward than was the albatross on the smooth rocking deck. It staggered and waddled clumsily, and tried in vain to lift itself with its wings. It showed considerable temper, and snapped furiously at all who approached, and the captain's dog, which came trotting up, full of curiosity over the strange visitor, received a terrible blow from the hooked beak, which sent him howling with pain to the most distant corner of the deck. As the officer was desirous to preserve the beak, breast, wings, and feet of this magnificent creature as souvenirs, he ordered the sailors to kill it, although he states that it impressed him as though he were commanding the execution of some royal personage.

The albatross is an expert swimmer, and floats on the waves like a piece of cork, riding in undisturbed serenity over the lofty foaming crests of stormy billows. It is not, however, a good diver, and is obliged to subsist on whatever food comes to the surface. It might be called the vulture of the seas, for dead fish, floating carcasses of whales, and other sea refuse form its main diet.

The habits of the albatross during the breeding season are still partially veiled in mystery, as the desolate mossy headlands of Tristan d'Acunha, Inaccessible Island, and other lands lying far to the southward, where the albatross makes its nest, are visited only at rare intervals. The island of Tristan is circular, and almost entirely volcanic, and on the summit of its cliffs, which rise a thousand feet above the sea, on broad dreary plains of dark gray lava, the albatrosses gather some time during November, and prepare themselves nests. Selecting some space free from tussock-grass, the bird scrapes together a circle of dried grass and clay, in which it lays one egg about the size of a swan's, white, with a band of small brick-red spots round one end. But few naturalists have been able to visit these great breeding warrens, and none have determined how the albatross lives and feeds its young during its absence from the ocean. It is certain that the great bird rarely leaves its nest, for there is a wicked little robber gull ever on the watch to break and eat the egg, should the mother-bird desert it for a moment.

The young, when hatched, are snow-white, and covered with a soft woolly down. A traveller once climbed up the dangerous precipice of Tristan d'Acunha, and saw these young helpless things lying in the nests, while several hundred pair of parent birds were stalking awkwardly about. They all snapped their beaks with a great noise, and ejected from them an offensive oil—their only means of defense. The same traveller visited the place five months later, when he found all the young albatrosses sitting in their nests as before, but the old birds had all disappeared. It is supposed that an albatross must be a year old before it can fly; and as the parents depart some time in April for their ocean hunting grounds, and are never seen to return until the breeding season again comes round, it is astonishing what feeds and supports the young until they are able to hunt for themselves. Naturalists wonder over this point, and advance many different theories, but as yet no facts have been discovered in regard to the diet of the young and helpless bird.

The albatross was formerly regarded with superstitious reverence by sailors, who considered this majestic companion which came around the ship in desolate icy seas as a bird of good omen; and to kill one was considered a crime that would surely be punished by disaster and shipwreck. Coleridge, the English poet, has written a wonderful poem on this superstition, called the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," to which Gustave Doré, a French artist, has drawn a series of illustrations picturing the lonely frozen ocean, and the majestic, lordly albatross which the unhappy sailor shot with his cross-bow, thereby bringing misfortune and death on the goodly ship and its crew.