The Wandering Albatross

Jan 2, 2013

Wandering albatross on Prion Island
Credit Jennifer Pemberton

Six years ago, Jennifer Pemberton watched a fledgling albatross take flight for the very first time. There's a reason why she's thinking about that particular bird this week and she tells us about it in this commentary.

Robert Cushman Murphy, a young naturalist aboard an American whaling ship in the early 20th century said, “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals for I have seen the albatross.” It is perhaps the boldest claim made about a bird, an exaggeration for sure, but I do feel privileged to be here with this pair, which mates for life. The wanderers fly literally around the world for years at a time and something happens in their little bird brains, in their stiff reliable wings, and they know it’s time to go home. And where is home for a bird that can stay on the wing for three to seven years? Home is an instinct, a flash of memory of an egg cracking and the unfamiliar sensation of frozen air. Home is a magnetic pull, an unnatural urge to be somewhere, to be on an island in the middle of the Southern Ocean. About 20% of the world’s population of wanderers breeds here, but the pairs manage to find each other after years of separation by emitting a call and performing a dance that is only recognizable to one bird in the entire world. It may be these miraculous birds themselves that form the higher cult of mortals.