Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, December 20, 1999

Humans help
golden gooney
with love life

Several years ago, while taking a sunrise walk on Midway, I saw the most beautiful albatross I have ever seen in my life.

This is saying a lot because, at the time, I was standing in the midst of about a million albatrosses. And although I admired each and every one of these wonderful seabirds, they were plain compared to this beauty.

There she sat, on top of a rise like a queen, her plumage gleaming gold and pink in the morning sun. As I watched, she stood, fixed a few feathers with her distinctly thick beak, then settled down again in her chosen spot, waiting for Mr. Right.

It turned out to be a long wait. This bird is one of the few remaining short-tailed albatrosses, or golden gooneys, left in the world. Biologists on Midway know this 18-year-old bird is a female because every two years for the past six years she has laid an egg. The three eggs did not hatch, though, because this bird had no mate.

Normally, young albatrosses stay at sea until they reach maturity around age six. Then they usually return to a spot near their birthplace to find a lifelong mate.

In the case of golden gooneys, however, both breeding grounds and potential mates are few and far between.

The decline of this species began in the latter part of the 19th century when fashion dictated that North American and European women wear feathers in their hats. And the slaughter was on.

Feather hunters traveled to remote seabird colonies to collect feathers, a fairly easy task since these birds evolved with no land predators and were therefore quite tame. Hunters could simply walk up to an albatross, grab it by the neck and cut its wings and tail off.

Most birds were left on the ground bleeding to death.

Another technique involved starving the birds, to eliminate body fat and mahe removing feathers easier.

A Japanese ornithologist estimated that 5 million short-tailed albatrosses (along with millions of individuals from other species) were killed for their feathers, wiping out most of their breeding colonies.

This gruesome hunting was eventually outlawed, but the golden gooneys had more troubles. A volcano on their main remaining nesting island, Japan's Tori Shima, erupted in 1939. Lava covered the entire albatross breeding grounds, leaving the birds homeless.

The species was declared extinct. Then in 1951, weathermen visiting Tori Shima discovered 10 birds there.

Today, researchers know of at least 230 breeding pairs of short-tailed albatrosses. But some, like the lovely loner that returns to Midway each year, are still tragically single.

Then last month, a Prince Charming appeared. This male golden goony, however, landed about 150 yards from the female and was soon courting his smaller cousins, some nearby black-footed and Laysan albatrosses.

After several frustrating days, U.S. Fish and Wildlife managers decided to give this ardent male and lonely female a helping hand. They moved the male bird to within 40 feet of the female. An hour later, the couple was dancing up a storm in one of the famous albatross courting rituals. Later, the female took off and the male returned to his previous spot.

Did these two pioneers mate? No one knows, but biologists hope the female is busy feeding to help her produce an egg.

Because golden gooneys are continually threatened by volcanic activity on Tori Shima, longline fishing, plastic pollution and oil spills, the species desperately needs a new breeding colony. Hopefully, Midway has one in the making.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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