The New International Encyclopædia/Albatross

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AL′BATROSS (Corrupted from Portug. alcatraz, the cormorant, from Ar. al, the + qādus, bucket, referring to its water-carrying pouch). A popular name for the large marine birds of the family Diomedea, closely related to the petrels (q.v.). Albatrosses are among the most exclusively pelagic birds known. They occur on nearly all parts of the ocean, excepting only the north Atlantic, and even there, owing to their extraordinary powers of flight, they are occasionally seen.

NIE 1905 Albatross - Beak.jpg


Like the petrels, albatrosses have the hind toe, or hallux, reduced to a mere claw, or entirely wanting, while the other three toes

are fully webbed. The nostrils also open at the ends of nearly cylindrical, horizontal tubes, a character upon which the order Tubinares is based. Albatrosses differ from petrels, however, not only in their great size, but also in having the nostril tubes placed one on each side of the bill, at its base, instead of close together on top. The bill of an albatross is a heavy and powerful structure, four inches long or more, and strongly hooked at the tip. The covering consists of several distinct plates of horn. The plumage of the body is very thick and compact, and well adapted to withstand not only water but cold. Experiment has shown that an albatross can withstand a temperature far below freezing for weeks at a time, even when confined, so that active movement is impossible. The tail is comparatively short and more or less rounded, but the wings are exceedingly long and pointed. The great length of wing is largely due to the unusual length of the humerus and the radius and ulna. Owing to this great length of upper arm and forearm, the number of flight-feathers carried on the wing exceeds that of any other known bird, the number of secondaries being about forty. As might be supposed from their size, albatrosses are very voracious. Their food is all gathered from the surface of the sea, as they do not dive. Fishes, pelagic mollusks, and other floating animal matter, including the offal of vessels, compose the food of these birds, and they may be caught from a vessel with hook and line baited with salt pork. Their power of flight is very remarkable, and they occasionally follow vessels for days at a time. Because of this habit, and because they are almost the only visible inhabitants of the wastes of the southern oceans, sailors regard them with superstitious affection, and it is considered a forerunner of most serious misfortune to kill an albatross. This fact has passed into literature in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The best modern description of the bird is in Fronde's Oceana. Albatrosses seldom visit land, and then only remote antarctic islands, to breed. Usually no nest is made, but the single egg is dropped on the bare earth. The egg is large and white, and somewhat ellipsoidal in shape.

The number of species of albatross is still doubtful, but it is probably not less than ten, nor more than a dozen. Of these all but one or two are placed in the genus Diomedea. The largest, and perhaps the best known, species is the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), which is found throughout the southern oceans, and occasionally strays to Europe and to Florida. The plumage of the adult is chiefly white, but the larger wing-coverts and part of the back are more or less barred with black. The young are dusky, lightest on the head. This species is four or five feet in length, and ten to twelve feet in extent of wings. On the Pacific coast of North America occur two species, the short-tailed (Diomedea albatrus) and the black-footed (Diomedea nigripes), both of which are said to be abundant. They are rather small for albatrosses, only three feet long and about seven feet across the wings. Another species of about the same size, widely distributed over the Pacific Ocean, is the sooty albatross (Phœbetria fulginosa). These three species are easily distinguished by their color: The short-tailed albatross is white, with dark wings and tail and flesh-colored feet; the black-footed is dark chocolate brown, whitening on the head, and the feet are black; while the sooty albatross is uniform sooty-brown, with light-colored feet. The last species also has a wedge-shaped tail and a slender bill. The yellow-nosed albatross (Diomedea chlororhyncha), so called from the color of the bill, is a well-known southern species. All these small forms are known to sailors as “mollymucks.” See Plate of Auks, Albatrosses, etc.