When Hob Osterlund moved to Kauai, she had some healing to do. Little did she know that the Laysan albatross, sea birds with six-foot wingspans, would be there to help her through the process. By learning more about the ancestry of the albatross that recently arrived on Kauai to create a new nesting colony, Osterlund would come to terms with her own family history.
In a book by turns fascinating and tear-jerking, humorous and poetic, readers of "Holy Mōlī: Albatross & Other Awesome Ancestors" are absorbed into the complex lives of Laysans and their tenuous future on Earth. Osterlund's years of citizen science has shown that these large and loving birds will go to great lengths to raise a family.
We spoke with Osterlund about the book, and also about many of the fascinating behaviors she has witnessed first hand, behaviors rarely seen among Laysans and some never before documented by science. We also dive into what it means to get close to your subjects, and the missing ingredient that could push conservation forward across the globe.
MNN: You underscore how rare it is for an albatross to start a new nesting colony. Just how rare is it? And might other nesting colonies be started on other islands, to help Laysan albatross escape the inevitable loss of their primary nesting site?
Hob Osterlund: All species of albatross are known for their fidelity to their natal nest sites. At Midway Atoll, where there are hundreds of thousands of nests, birds can sometimes even be found in small clusters of family units. I've seen birds who consistently choose the same area of about 10 or 20 square feet, year after year.
When I searched the literature, I was able to find another possible incidence of albatross starting a new island colony, on Isla de Guadalupe in Mexico. On Isla de Guadalupe and on Kauai, it may be that there were colonies prior to human arrival, so the nesting sites might be considered a recolonization of an ancient homeland.
As sea levels rise, birds will have to try to find creative new nesting sites on their own, but those sites may not be at high enough elevation. We can also attract them to safe places with decoys and vocalization units. I have a fantasy that some young genius is going to invent a way to use oceanic plastic to create artificial islands. When all is said and done, however, the most attractive thing to an albatross is another albatross.
You’ve been involved in relocation efforts for Laysan albatross eggs, trying to ensure the ongoing presence of the species on Kauai by preventing them from becoming a nuisance animal when nesting in trafficked areas. What other challenges have there been in trying to balance the need for Laysans to nest on Kauai with the residents of the island?
The U.S. Navy and the Pacific Missile Range Facility are partners in the effort to decrease the albatross population on the military base in order to prevent collisions between birds and airplanes. In the program, fertile eggs are removed from nests and relocated to parents whose eggs are infertile but whose nests are in safer locations. The eggs are also being used to start a new colony on a wildlife refuge on Oahu.
When balancing the needs of albatross and humans, there are several other challenges. Coastal land on Kauai is top-dollar real estate, so purchasing land for the purpose of bird refuge is a very expensive proposition. When I founded the Kauai Albatross Network (KAN), one of my first priorities was solidifying relationships with habitat landowners — some of whom live here only part of the year — so we could identify common goals and stay in touch.
One of the big issues on those properties is protecting the birds from predators. Feral cats, wild pigs and domestic dogs present a problem for ground-nesting birds who never had to worry about predation before people arrived. Whenever possible, the properties need good fences. We help the landowners with checking those fences and with trapping, especially feral cats and dogs. The state wildlife agencies lead these efforts, and we can provide them with an extension of their services.
We also work with Hawaiian Islands Land Trust so conservation easements can be a conversation with interested landowners. We are very fortunate on Kauai for many reasons; one is the fact that most of the property owners appreciate the presence of albatross on their land. No one has ever asked us to remove the birds, nor have we had landowners intentionally harm them.
You've spotted quite a bit of rare behavior during your monitoring efforts, including female-female pairs, three-albatross households, and even the case of "twins" when a female-female albatross pair each hatched an egg. How has Kauai Albatross Network and documenting these unexpected behaviors helped contribute to our understanding of the species?
In some cases, we donʻt really know the frequency of some behaviors. At Midway Atoll where the birds are bumper-to-bumper, facts can be extrapolated from dozens or even hundreds of birds, and there are researchers working hard on measuring many variables. But itʻs virtually impossible to study the entire population. On Kauai and Oahu we have the luxury of having small populations, so all the albatross can be monitored.
We know for sure the colonies here on Kauai have a significant presence of female-female couples, sometimes as high as one-third of the pairs. Itʻs fascinating to me. Thereʻs one theory that the reason for these mates is because females are the pioneering gender among albatross, so they hook up because they outnumber males.
But since we havenʻt had the resources to do DNA testing on adult birds on Kauai recently, we donʻt know if the gender ratio has changed. We donʻt know for sure if the incidence of female-female pairs is increasing or decreasing. And even if the ratio has changed, the females I've been monitoring continue to stay mates, season after season.
I donʻt know of any other animal species where there are long-term same-sex mates, so these girls have the potential to teach us a lot. They are very affectionate with each other, and when they do have chicks, are usually excellent parents.
About the "twins" — I could find no previously documented case of two albatross chicks hatching in the same nest. The babes had different mothers and perhaps different fathers. No one knew how they would behave. Would the bigger one push out the smaller one? Would they fight over the limited food delivered by their hard-working moms? No. They spent the night together and preened each other like mates would. They were gregarious and inquisitive and adorable.
Their survival was such a long shot you could easily have used the word "never." But we'd been told they would never hatch too, so I did not ever give up hope for their survival. In the end, their hard-working moms could not keep them alive. When they died, I told my friends to call the cops. My heart had been robbed.
You get very connected to the Laysans you watch, naming them and following their stories as if they were human. While some scientists discourage this kind of connection, and definitely discourage anthropomorphizing their subjects, other scientists encourage feeling connected to the individuals they're studying and working to protect. Indeed, Jane Goodall irritated other academics by naming the chimps she studied. What are your thoughts about balancing research with emotional connection?
I understand both perspectives. We need the science, but our biggest problem is not an absence of facts, it's apathy and disconnection. Many people have no clue why they should care about the countless species going extinct.
I try not to anthropomorphize or project my feelings into the birds. It's not my goal to follow them as if they are human; in fact, itʻs the opposite. I have a goal of seeing them for who they are, which is much more beautiful than seeing them as feathered humans.
Albatross have been around for millions of years — we should be their students and protectors and champions, not their parents. And certainly not their "friends," at least as we define it for humans. Neither do I think itʻs good for us to keep an aloof distance or to refer to them as "it." I sometimes assign genders to birds when I write stories, even though I have a 50 percent chance of being wrong. But if I call the bird "it" I have a 100 percent chance of being wrong. No animal is a genderless thing, no animal is a number.
Hereʻs an example: When Cecil was killed, would we have seen such an outpouring of rage (and love) from the western world if the lion had been identified as P259? We sometimes think of naming as a purely human trait, but we now know that some other species have their own ways of naming individuals.
In the end, here's what trumps the naming vs non-naming argument for me: We desperately need more people to care about wild animals. If we can't get that to happen very soon, they will be gone.
Elephants and tigers and gorillas will be reduced to being cartoons on childrens' pajamas. Facts about endangered species may open the door, but by themselves they can't make people fall in love; I think itʻs a sense of connection, empathy and kinship that makes us commit to protecting them. Naming can help that. Another thing: Any day I wake up and find myself in the same camp as Jane Goodall is a day I know my mama raised me right.
This book is one part natural history of a species, one part storytelling about individual animals, and one part explaining the catharsis albatross provided you for your own losses. It reminds me a bit of "H Is For Hawk." How has writing it helped you connect even more to the work you do to protect Laysan albatross nesting on Kauai?
How generous of you to put "Holy Mōlī" in the same sentence as "H is for Hawk." In the book I describe a promise I made to my mother after she died of breast cancer when I was 10 years old.
Because I had no other structure for understanding her death, I blamed myself. It's a typical response of school-age children. I thought I had done something horribly wrong — so wrong, in fact, so poisonous, that no one could ever speak its name. Since I didn't know what it was I had done, I couldn't undo it or apologize for it. I couldn't promise to never do it again. So instead I promised my departed mother I would bring her back to life.
For decades that promise was my puppeteer, jerking me here and there as I tried to make good on my vow. My first epiphany with mōlī — the Hawaiian name for albatross — came one day when I was watching some birds in courtship. I was so riveted I didn't notice an animal coming up behind me. When it came into my peripheral vision, I was startled. I needn't have been. It was an albatross heading up the bluff to join the dance.
As she passed, she stepped on my foot. No eye contact, no indication that she knew I even existed. I was an irrelevant as a root. And you know what? I've never had higher praise. I was washed with a sense of freedom and relief.
It took me a long time to realize what was behind that revelation. If a wild animal can see me as moot, has no fear of me, maybe I really wasn't guilty of murdering my mother. Or maybe I'd been exonerated. Either way, it was pure joy. I'm not saying all my guilt and grief disappeared in that instant, but the pressure of it got seriously punctured.
There's one other part to my answer. The Hawaiian culture has a concept called ʻaumakua. The ʻaumakua is an animal or other presence (wind, rain, ocean) that embodies oneʻs ancestors for the purpose of warning and protecting you. Sharks, green sea turtles and Hawaiian owls are well-known as ʻaumakua. For me, thereʻs no question the mōlī is my ʻaumakua. As a result, I have no choice — nor would I want another option — but to serve them in return.
When I serve albatross, I am also serving my ancestors. And in a sense, I have also honored my promise. I have brought my mother back to life.
Becoming a citizen scientist for the albatross has been a defining factor in the direction of your life. What advice would you give to others with a budding interest in citizen science?
My advice is to go for it. Don't procrastinate. Identify the animal or place you feel the most connected with, and serve that. You are needed. Admit to yourself that our Mother has a life-threatening diagnosis, and now is the time for all-hands-on-deck. Do not let fear obstruct your efforts.
Scientists rely on us for data that can help them identify global trends. When you join other people who are serving, you will also find yourself in a fine community. You won't necessarily meet them in person, but that's not the point. If your life is overwhelming and you feel you donʻt have one ounce of energy to spare, see if you can find a few seconds each day to hold your favorite depiction of Earth: a shell, a feather, a photo. Send it all the love you can muster, the love you feel in the presence of an infant or puppy or panda cub.
We are all in this together, and we will all be impacted by the changes around us.
Hereʻs my favorite quote from the Talmud I keep by my desk:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the worldʻs grief
Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now
You are not obligated to complete the work
But neither are you free to abandon it.
If there's one thing you want people to know about the Laysan albatross, what would it be?
I want people to know the albatross is our sibling, not unlike every other critter in our world. They are mysterious and brilliant, from the smallest being to the largest. An albatross is one magnificent example.
They have a story to tell, and our hearts will grow full when we hear that story. Falling in love is good for us. We feel more alive, more aligned, more eager to serve. The face of a person in love is much more attractive than the face of a depressed person.
Also, albatross need us if they are to survive. They don't need us to snuggle with, or turn into pets; they need us to use our collective genius so they can find food and raise their babies. Itʻs all they ask, and it's the least we can do.
Kauai may be their Noahʻs Ark, but Noah is no longer one person. Noah is all of us.
You can order copies of "Holy Mōlī: Albatross & Other Awesome Ancestors" from the publisher's website. And while you wait for a copy to arrive, watch Laysan albatross chicks growing up in real time thanks to a live-streaming albatross cam hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.