Albastro: Everything you need to know about this bird family

We invite you to meet the Albastro, a majestic and even gigantic bird, well that depends on the species but it is known to be the flying bird of today that has the largest wingspan of all, not to mention all the great adaptations it has for survival. Similarly, it is a family of birds that has twenty-two species but some are classified as endangered and the differences between each of them is very noticeable, not only in their appearance but also in their behavior.

The Abastro has the scientific name Diomedeidae and belongs to the order Procellariiformes, which refers to birds that eat freely in the ocean. Its distribution is found in the Antarctic, South Antarctic, and Pacific oceans. Abastros are very large because they belong to the genus Diomedea, their wingspan is large and they are divided into four genera, while their way of moving is efficient because when they fly they glide dynamically covering considerable distances without any effort.

Taxonomy and evolution of Albastro

The family of the albastros or Diomedeidae is composed of thirteen or twenty-four species, this depends on the classification you want to follow since there has been a very extensive debate about it. In any case, the four genera that exist correspond to the large albastros or Diomedea, the North Pacific albastros Thalassarche, the Phoebastria and then the dark albastros Phoebetria. However, the North Pacific albastros are relatives of the large and the dark ones are closer to the Thalassarche.

Although there is no clear taxonomy, albastros are distinct from other Procellariformes birds in their genetics and morphological characteristics, mostly because of their large size, the design of their legs and the position of their nostrils.

It is believed that the origin of the Albastro is ancient, dating back to before the Oligocene, since a fossil was found from the Cretaceous, that is, about seventy million years ago. There are other fossils found between the Eocene and Oligocene. Also, what is claimed is that the separation of each genus, species and subspecies

Characteristics of Albastro

In general all albastros eat fish, krill, squid and even carrion, when hunting they may dive or simply catch fish that are close to the surface. They like to stay in colony and make nests on distant islands in the ocean, they do not mind sharing their territory with other bird species and are monogamous, unless the whole colony is organized and to increase the lack of males adopt a very strange behavior which is that a male will have two females.

Let’s talk now a little about the etymology of the term Albastro, as we have seen with it is designated to the birds of the family Dromedeidae and it has been confirmed that in turn comes from the English albatross. At the same time this comes from the Portuguese alcatraz and this from the Arabic al-caudous or al-gattas whose literal meaning is diver. However, alcatraz was used to designate the frigates then it was that it changed to Albastro due to the contact with the Latin albus whose meaning is white as opposed to the frigates.

Biological aspects and adaptations of the Albastro

Let’s start this section talking about its morphology and flight. The Albastro’s size is large as well as its strong bill with its upper jaw with a hooked termination. In turn, the beak is comprised of several horny plates and on the sides it has tubular-shaped nostrils accompanied by the lateral sections of its beak and through them they expel salt.These nostrils are arranged vertically, one on each side of the beak, and this differentiates them from other Procellariiformes that have the same tubes but on the upper side of their beaks.

The advantage of having such nasal structures is that they have an excellent sense of smell which is very rare in birds, they use this potential sense as other Procellariformes to locate their food sources, it also allows them to reduce the levels of salt accumulated in their body by the intake of sea water when they eat for this reason, every bird of this type has this gland that is at the base of its beak and above their eyes. However, in some birds this gland remains inactive while for the Albaster it is essential.

As for the legs of the Albastro we can say that they lack the opposite toe at the back but its three front toes are glued by an interdigital membrane that gives them the ability to swim, perch and take off and then glide over the water. The Albastro’s legs are strong and like petrels they walk easily on land.

The plumage of the Albastro as an adult is dark tan above the wings but is white underneath, in what resembles somewhat to the gulls. However, this varies according to the species as the royal Albastro or Diomedea epomophora is white except on the tips and hindwing tips whereas, the Amsterdam Albastro or Diomedea amsterdamensis has feathers that resemble that of the young which is chestnut colored as well as a conspicuous stripe on its breast.

North Pacific albastros have yellow or ash-colored spots on their face, eyes, nape and head. On the other hand, we have the black-footed albastros or Phoebastria nigripes and the two species of dark albastros that are completely separated from the common patterns being almost dark brown in its totality or, dark gray in certain parts such as it happens with the black albastros or Phoebetria palpebrata whose plumage takes a couple of years to be like that of an adult.

A very interesting fact has to do with the wingspan of the large albastros that exceeds that of today’s flying birds as it can exceed three and a half meters, other species have it of one meter seventy-five centimeters. The wings are like a rigid arch but on the front side there is a robust aerodynamic structure. They fly considerable distances using techniques such as dynamic glide and talus glide, with the first one they do not make an effort because they can cross the limits between the air currents with horizontal speed changes and a high level of air.

With the second technique, it takes advantage of the currents that arise from the wind when it stumbles upon a hill or hill, in which case the Albastro faces the wind, rises and glides to the surface of the ocean. The glide coefficient of the Albastro is high, which means that for every meter it descends, it advances about twenty-three meters. Something that helps them to glide is to have a tendinous or sinewy membrane that blocks the wing when it is extended, this also helps them to have their wings open without straining and is an adaptation shared with petrels.

Similarly, there are albastros that can combine their flight techniques with their natural systems that help them predict the weather. The albatrosses of the Southern Hemisphere when they fly north from their colonies follow a clockwise course and those that fly south do so in the opposite way. Thanks to their adaptation to the environment in which they live, their heart rate when they fly is the same as when they are at rest.When the Albastro takes off, lands and catches its prey is when it uses the most energy.

The success of their hunting is due to their adaptations, but it is difficult for them when the wind and waves are depressing because of the way they fly, which requires the wind. Not all albatross species can fly actively by flapping their wings, so they have no choice but to rest on the surface of the water, the only place where they sleep. Although some North Pacific albastros combine gliding with wing movement, to take off they must run to get air under their wings and lift off.

The distribution of the Albastro

Albatrosses are found in the Southern Hemisphere also in Antarctica, Australia, South Africa and South America but only in the North Pacific are there three species native to that area also found in Hawaii, Japan, California and Alaska, with one species in the Galapagos where it nests but eats on the South American coasts. The fact that they are found in elevated areas is connected to their need for wind for their peculiar gliding flight. Some believe that albastros became extinct in the North Atlantic because of an interglacial warming in Bermuda.

The albastros are not migratory birds in the strict sense of making an annual migration, their dispersion is observed basically in the breeding season and as for those of the Southern Hemisphere it is known that they make circumpolar trips. If we want to know more we have to investigate for each species because there are differences between them such as the fact that some eat in areas with many meters deep but others do it at a shallower depth, some fly to the east and others to the west depending on the sex.

Albaster feeding

Basically the diet of albastros is based on the ingestion of crustaceans, fish and cephalopods or marine invertebrates related to mollusks. Likewise, they may eat dead animals and zooplankton while other species remain on the breeding diet when they return to land. In general, there are variations in the food tastes of each Albastro species, some eat squid, others fish and krill but what they all have in common is that they are diurnal, feeding only during the day.

The albastros of the Galapagos is the only member of the Procellariiformes that performs kleptoparasitism. There are also albatrosses that dive one meter deep, others go up to five meters deep and others to more than twelve and a half meters to capture their food. Other albatrosses dive to catch their food, that is, they are not only collectors of fish that are on the ocean surface.

Albastro’s reproduction and behavior

When the breeding season of the albaster arrives, they remain in a colony and nest on distant islands, for example, in continental areas they are found on promontories that have excellent accessibility to the sea on all sides. There are albastros that make their nest in the open forest under the trees like the black-footed and gray-footed albastros. The number of nests in the hills as well as the number of adults and pairs in the hills is variable.

What is certain is that the colonies are seen in areas that did not have terrestrial mammals in the past and they are birds with philopatric behavior, that is, they return to their colony of origin to reproduce.Like other seabirds of its kind, the albastro shows a low birth rate compensated by a high longevity, as they delay the time of procreation to spend more effort on a few offspring.

In most species of albastros they live more than fifty years; they reach sexual maturity at five years of age but the search for a mate can begin up to ten years later and if at some point there is a shortage of males monogamous couples reach a generalized agreement so that a male has two females at his disposal, it is a rare behavior among birds and does not happen all the time. During the breeding season, non-breeding albastros dedicate themselves to practice mating rituals that include a courtship made up of dances and singing, but although they learn to do them perfectly when they perform them in their natal colony, it may happen that they do not know how to interpret them because they are novices, then, these first experiences are performed with many albastros and as time goes by they reduce the number of individuals with whom they do it, this is because they strive to find their ideal partner, when they find it they create a special dance among them.

The movements or body gestures that they make must be interpreted as a whole because they are given in a synchronized way the preening, the pointing to different directions or one in specific, the types of calls, the sounds with movements of the beak, they can even leave their gaze fixed. All this is important for the choice of the right mate, since the rearing of the chick or small Albaster will take place until the offspring acquires all its plumage, which can take up to more than a year.

The female Albaster lays a single white egg with brown or red spots, the weight of the egg can range from two hundred to five hundred and ten grams and if it is lost by some unfortunate event or predator they will not try to lay another one but wait until the following year. Southern albastros make their large nests using shrubs, soil, grass and even feathers but the nests made by North Pacific albastros are more rudimentary.

There are also other albastros that do not nest but move their eggs around the breeding area even if they risk losing them. As for incubation, both the female and the male albatross incubate their egg taking variable shifts of one day or three weeks and just like the kiwi bird the incubation of its only egg is super long lasting seventy or eighty days and this makes the adult can lose up to eighty-three grams in a single day.

Another true and regrettable thing is that there are albastros in danger of extinction or in a vulnerable state, as assured by the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN, which has classified twenty-two species of albastros with eight vulnerable, six types in danger of extinction and three of them are in the category of critical danger of extinction.

Exactly these last three species are the Amsterdam Albaster, the Tristan Albaster and the Galapagos Albaster. Another terrible threat to the albastros is the longline fishing because the albastro when taking the bait or the bait is pressed in the same one dying drowned.

Albastro in danger of extinction

Another thing that has caused the population of albatrosses to decrease and they are in such grave danger of disappearing is that many of them die colliding with airplanes and causing accidents that result in human losses. Likewise, there are non-native animal species that affect the alabastros because they invade their breeding territories and can eat their eggs or chicks, as has been seen in the case of cats and even mice and rats that eat the chicks alive.

Even cows represent a threat to albatrosses because they eat the grass that they use to make their nests, not to mention plant species that alter their habitat on the ground where they nest.

Then we have the unfortunate fact that albatrosses are affected by human waste, garbage and most of all the plastic that reaches the ocean by ocean currents and rivers that flow into the sea, the plastic is indigestible and can even drown them not to mention that the residues can be transferred from parents to their young.

Conservation is basically in the hands of people and organizations interested in the care of wildlife who have implemented the awareness of fishermen and have even circulated laws that say how they should fish to not affect the Albastro but, not everything is rosy because there are fishing vessels that are pirates and ignore such laws, regulations or efforts to help conserve the albastro.

More interesting facts about the Albastro

As you can see the Albastro is a sensational bird and every time we move forward we know more surprising things about it, for example in this section it is very important for you to know that the Albastro has become famous since great writers have included it in their poetic repertoire such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge did with his poem “Ballad of the old sailor” that appeared to the public light at the end of the decade of the seventeenth century. In this poem the Albastro takes the meaning of being a sea bird that can carry within itself the wandering souls of the drowned sailors on the high seas.

The superstition that was generated around the figure of the unfortunate Albastro caused him to be brutally persecuted and hunted so we could say that his relationship with humans has not been very good to say, because we ourselves are the ones who have endeavored to kill him, destroying it without any consideration, such is the case of the people who illegally fish tuna in the Antarctic Ocean that produces the horrible death of albatrosses that reaches one hundred thousand dead specimens every year and the worst of all, is that this happens nowadays when we humans are supposed to be more aware and grateful with the natural wonders and respect every living being.

As we said before in the threats what affects them most is the human method of fishing lines with the bait attached and as males and females eat in different places and separately it turns out that the latter have been the most affected by such a situation.

Another great poet, Baudelaire took as a fundamental part the figure of the albastros as part of a metaphor that has been interpreted by many people with the sense of having a great weight or worry on their shoulders, a bad omen although there are always exceptions, other human beings believed on the contrary that killing albastros was something bad.

On the contrary, we see the Maori who used their bones to make tattoos on their bodies in various ceremonies or rituals, even to carve flutes were used. Likewise, it is good to know that today the albastros present sources of income to the areas where they decide to spend the night to make their nests or in their surroundings because the fact of making large or variable colonies of quantity these are focal points for ecotourism, as can be confirmed with the colony of northern royal albastros located in New Zealand, specifically in Taiaroa Head which constantly attracts up to an exorbitant amount of forty thousand tourists per year, while those located in more remote areas but within sight of cruise ships or ships passing through the sub-Antarctic islands are equally admired but, from a slightly more distant perspective, ornithologists also enjoy these natural spectacles provided by the Albastro.

We hope that this article will be of great use to you, because as far as possible we provide you with all the essential and most important information about this family of birds, the Albaster. Remember that its conservation depends solely and exclusively on us, the human beings who paradoxically present at the same time its greatest threat. We hope you enjoy watching the videos provided to complement what we have said.