What Do You Do With Flightless Laysan Albatross?

By Jay Holcomb, Executive Director

On March 26, 1979 a Laysan Albatross was found wandering around the streets of San Francisco unable to fly. The bird was captured and brought to IBRRC in Berkeley, CA.

Nine years after release, “Munch” was spotted on an egg at Isla Guadalupe.

An examination revealed that all of the primary and secondary feathers on both of the birds wings and all of the tail feathers had been clipped about half way down the shaft. We could only assume that someone thought this bird would be a good pet and clipped its wings. The bird was otherwise in good condition. The question then was what do we do with a flightless albatross?

Holding this bird until it completed its annual molt in October was not a good option for various reasons. These birds are difficult to keep in captivity as they rarely self feed and are always aggressive and difficult to handle. They prefer to just sit around and in order to prevent secondary husbandry problems such as feather damage and foot and keel sores we keep them floating in pools at all times. They do not like this and it means that they usually have to have a pool to themselves, as they are intolerant of other birds in such close quarters and annoyed that they can’t get out of the water. These factors can all add up to a lot of stress for a bird, making them susceptible to aspergillosis and other diseases. The bottom line in albatross rehabilitation is to keep them floating in clean water while in captivity and get them released as soon as possible.

After reviewing all the facts, the idea of imping the bird’s feathers was brought up. Falconers originally developed imping. It is a feather splicing technique where a whole feather that matches the broken one is cut to fit with the other feather making a whole feather. The feather shaft is then plugged or splinted internally with something light but strong like thin wire and then glued to the broken feather creating the whole feather. This partially “fake” feather should replace the broken one until the bird molts and grows a new whole feather. That may be fine for a raptor as there are usually plenty of feathers around but our problems were where do you get an entire Laysan albatross body to get whole feathers from? What kind of glue will hold up on a bird that relies so heavily on the perfection of its feathers in a pelagic environment?

The US Fish & Wildlife Service was very helpful and sent us a dead Laysan albatross from Hawaii that had a complete set of healthy feathers. A saltwater epoxy was located and tiny drill bits were found that were thin, light and strong enough to act as the internal support for each feather. The actual imping procedure took only 30 minutes per wing. It was most stressful on the people doing the procedure, as it required four people, two to hold the bird still and two to do the imping. The tail feathers proved too thin and were not able to be imped but albatross tails are fairly short anyway so we figured that it would probably not effect the bird’s flight.

After the procedure the bird was placed back in its private pool and seemed to be oblivious to its new feathers. The rehabilitation of this bird was otherwise simple and basic albatross rehab. It was force fed daily and left alone in the pool.

At that time it was thought that in order to give the bird the best chance for survival it should be released at least 200 miles offshore so that it could resume its natural flight patterns. We now know that these birds regularly feed within sight of the California coastline and we release albatrosses within 25 miles of the mainland. At that time releasing the bird just offshore was not an option.

Plan B was to send the bird to a breeding colony on one of the main Hawaiian Islands but the Hawaii Department of Agriculture did not agree with our plans fearing that the bird could introduce Newcastle’s Disease to the islands. However, it was agreed to possibly release the bird into the breeding colony on Midway Island.

After weeks of various tests for disease, acquiring health certificates and doing a lot of pleading and dealing with government bureaucracy IBRRC was given the OK to release the bird on Midway Island, 1,000 miles nortwest of Hawaii. On May 21, with a $93.98 one way ticket to Honolulu and an agreement by the US Coast Guard to fly the bird to Midway Island, the bird left California.

It is important to point out that this bird received a lot of attention from the press while it was at IBRRC. Several feature articles about this animal’s unusual story were featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers. Although we do not usually name birds the bird received the name “Munch” by the press and those who need to name birds. Munch was an accurate name as the bird was extremely aggressive and grew even nastier after a few months of being handled daily. All the staff that had to handle Munch was happy to see him go and everyone, including the press, was anxious to know how the release went.

Munch was released on May 22, 1979 into the Laysan Albatrosses colony on Midway Island. The head game warden on the island reported to IBRRC that as soon as Munch was released he started a courting dance with another bird but then acted disoriented for the first 24 hours. He also mentioned that out of the hundreds of albatrosses they had handled while doing their banding and monitoring projects, Munch was by far the meanest bird they had ever come across. We attributed his particularly nasty behavior to the almost two months of being force-fed by humans. In short, we created a monster.

On July 23, 1979 we received a letter that gave a brief explanation of the six days of observation that followed. His letter ended with: Finally, on the seventh day, Munch disappeared into the sunset, or so we would like to believe, as he can no longer be located on the island. We sincerely hope he has joined the more than 365,000 Laysan Albatross who yearly make Midway Island their home. We will certainly notify you if he is one of our recoveries next season.

Another fateful encounter

Nine years later, on February 20, 1988 IBRRC received a call from Steve Howell, a seabird biologist. He asked if I remembered an albatross that IBRRC had banded in 1979. He explained that he was visiting Isla Guadalupe, a group of small islands off of Baja California, and had heard that Laysan Albatross had begun nesting there two years earlier. On January 25, 1988, he located 35 to 40 Laysan Albatross in their new colony. Twelve were incubating single eggs. On closer inspection he noticed that one had been banded. He gave me the band number that was on the bird, 977-35061 and I looked it up. It was Munch.

Munch made rehabilitation history by being the first known imped albatross, and know she or he was making albatross history. The Guadalupe colony is the first ever east of Hawaii. That is about 2,500 miles from Hawaii. A week later we received a picture of Munch on an egg.

Munch’s discovery was a significant finding for us. Of course, we had no way of knowing if the glue or the feathers held up or if there were any other captivity related problems that showed up once Munch was released. The rediscovery of Munch showed us that albatrosses can be rehabilitated, imping is a worthwhile tool for rehabilitators and that our efforts had paid off. The fact that Much was reproducing was significant as critics of rehabilitation often question whether rehabilitated animals reproduce. And the fact that Munch lived for 9 more years was just great news. Of all the birds that IBRRC had cared for up until that point, Munch was hands down the one that we all were the most curious about. The discovery that Munch was alive, and a parent as well, was a dream come true.

A special note about Laysan Albatross

Although Laysan Albatross are commonly seen feeding offshore from California to Alaska they are rarely found on the mainland. They nest on islands in the remote areas of the Pacific Ocean and can fly hundreds of miles a day in search of food. Laysan’s have a ten to twelve foot wingspan designed for soaring and traveling long distances. Studies have shown that an individual bird can spend a year or more at sea, never touching land.

Albatross are just one of the seabird species that have an unusual habit of landing on ships, most likely thinking they are land. It is not unusual for IBRRC to get a few calls a year from local shipyards that while unloading cargo discover an albatross hidden between boxes or cargo containers. They usually come to us in their breeding season when they would normally sit on an island for weeks at a time, mating, courting and establishing territories. We believe this is why they land on boats and don’t leave. They think the boat is land. These birds are usually in good condition and just cannot get airborne. Most birds spend under a week at the center and are then taken by boat and released about 25 miles offshore.