Travel to Kaua’i and you never know just what will happen next! I have been staying at the home of friends who have developed a sweet and dedicated relationship with albatrosses.
The situation here in the east and north-east sector of Kaua’i is astonishing by any standard, and can be credited to a great number of human beings who are willing, even delighted, to live convivially with these magnificent birds. My own standards when I got here were pretty low as I was traumatised by the violence against fellow creatures that I had been witnessing and writing about in Australia. Being here conjures that lovely old term ‘balm’. A sense of healing arises in the presence of people who generously share their land and their lives with other creatures, and who, in fact, feel blessed by the opportunity to live in close proximity with others.
Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) are wonderful birds to share a place with because their evolved way of life has not required them to be fearful of predators. Humans can walk amongst them without disturbing them, and this fact has brought out the best and the worst in humans. Albatrosses were nearly driven to extinction through mass murder in pursuit of feathers for ladies hats, and other commercial products. That no longer happens, and in fact something else is also taking place: gratitude for the fact that we can be amongst wild animals in the most intimate proximity.
The gift of proximity is a blessing received, a path toward humility.
Albatrosses spend about seven years dancing and courting before settling on their mate. They have a very low ‘divorce’ rate, and they share the labour first of sitting on the nest, and then of feeding the growing chick. It takes two parents to raise one chick, and every chick is testimony to the parents’ deep devotion. These fantastic birds fly eighty thousand or more kilometres annually to gather food from the North Pacific and raise their chicks on Hawaiian islands such as this.
The chick I am hanging out with now is the child of Makana and Kūpa’a. I wrote about these particular albatrosses in a book chapter published last year (I include the section on Albatrosses and Crazy Love). Two years ago something went wrong, and the chick did not hatch. Rick and Louise, the generous people who introduced me to Makana and Kūpa’a, told me that the following year the same couple returned to make a nest nearby, and raised a chick successfully. This year they made their nest under the deck. It is a great location – protected from full sun and full rain, and rather inconspicuous.
I have spent a lot of time on the deck hoping that a parent will come to feed the chick, but so far it hasn’t happened in my presence. The parents are ranging far and wide to get the food they need for themselves and little one – right now they could be in Alaska! How they come back to exactly this headland, to exactly this deck and this chick is actually unknown (to humans). And yet they do, and all the while the defenceless chick waits, developing the arts of patience along with growing feathers to replace its fluffy down.
Over the coming decades, if the couple survives the hazards of long-line fishing and ingestion of plastics, along with the land-based perils of dogs, cats and humans, they will almost certainly keep coming back and raising chicks. In due course, some of those chicks will also come here to nest and raise chicks.
Returning to the here and now, the chick sits in his nest. Sometimes he stretches, or grooms himself, sometimes he appears to sleep. Often he looks up expectantly, and from time to time he clacks his bill, making the distinctive albatross sound that, in the chick-parent context, is asking for food. Occasionally he gets up and walks out onto the lawn, and after a gentle stroll returns to his nest and settles down to wait. My little home video (view here) shows him out on the lawn, and walking back to the nest, settling in, and doing a bit of grooming and clacking.
The arts of albatross life are indeed beautiful – to dance, to make commitments that can last ‘forever’, to navigate, to fly while sleeping, to return to the right place at the right time, and through it all, to live the varied cadences with appropriate attention. The perfectly matched dances, the dive for food, the feeding of the chick, the chatter, the grooming, and the lift upward on the winds; the travel, the brooding, the patience, the serenity.
I try to imagine such flight, and find myself thinking of wind harps. The breath of life flows through us all, and each creature sounds forth the harmony that is their way of life. The big question for humans never goes away: will my life be tuned to blessings or to destruction?
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
The best entry into the wonders of albatross life is through the website developed by Hob Osterlund – Kaua’i Albatross Network. There you will also find a critter cam and can watch an albatross chick developing in real time.
Much of the information in this essay comes from Carl Safina’s award-winning book Eye of the Albatross.
My article that includes ‘albatrosses and crazy love’ started life as a keynote speech, and can be viewed here.