Black-footed Albatross

Phoebastria nigripes

(c) Glen Tepke
  • DIOMEDEIDAE
  • Albatrosses
  • Procellariiformes
  • Albatros de Patas Negras
  • Albatros à pieds noirs
Introduction

One of only two albatrosses to breed on U.S. soil, the Black-footed Albatross is the most commonly sighted species off North America's western coast. Some individual birds journey from their Hawaiian nesting sites to northern California, sometimes traveling 2,600 miles each way, to find food for their young, which remain at the nest in Hawaii's Northwest Chain. For native Hawaiian culture, this elegant seabird is a symbol of renewal and growth.

(c) Tom Grey
Appearance Description

The Black-footed Albatross is entirely dark brown except for a narrow white area at the base of the bill and a white patch behind the eye. Some adults (reportedly about 10% of the population) also have a white band at the base of the tail and white under the tail. The dark bill and feet of this species set them apart from juvenile Short-tailed Albatrosses, the only other dark albatrosses seen in the eastern North Pacific. Sexes have similar plumage, as do juvenile birds. Black-footed Albatrosses are smaller than other albatross species, but their wingspans can still reach up to 88 inches (over 7 feet). On average, they weigh 6.2 pounds and measure 32 inches long.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

The majority of Black-footed Albatrosses nest on remote islands and atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago: Midway Atoll, Laysan Island, Kure Atoll, Pearl & Hermes Reef and others. Small colonies continue on the Torishima, Bonin, and Senkaku Islands south of Japan. Before feather hunters in the 19th Century and the effects of World War II, breeding colonies also existed on these islands: Johnston, Marcus, Marshall, Northern Marianas, Volcano, and Wake. In summer, this albatross spreads across the northern Pacific into the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The most commonly sighted albatross in continental North American waters, this species can be found reliably off the western coast of North America from June to August, although they may be present throughout the year.

Habitat

This species prefers to nest on the undisturbed sandy shores of remote Pacific Islands, north of the Equator. It forages over deep water, near to shore and over the open ocean. Several birds, tracked by satellite, traveled over 15,000 km (9,300 miles) - from their breeding grounds in Hawaii to the continental shelf off Oregon and northern California - during foraging trips to gather food for their young.

Feeding

The Black-footed Albatross forages mostly during the day by snatching prey from the surface of the ocean, dipping into it like a duck, or diving just below the surface. The diet includes flying fish and their eggs, crustaceans like the red opossum shrimp (not really a shrimp; Gnathophausia gigas) and isopods (Anuropus branchiatus), many squid like Taonius borealis (no common name), and other fish. This albatross readily scavenges and follows fishing vessels to take discards and to pull bait from submerged hooks.

Reproduction

In October and early November, the Black-footed Albatross returns to its breeding grounds, usually within a few yards of the previous year's nest. Life-long pairs reinforce old bonds with a series of postures to create a ritualized dance. Among the ten described behaviors, they bow, gently touch bills, preen each other, and shake their heads as they whine. The nest is a depression in the sand, sometimes ringed with loose vegetation to protect against high tides. Both adults share in the responsibilities of caring for the egg and young. Marked on the round end with brown spots, one white egg is incubated by the pair for about 65 days. The downy hatchling requires brooding, regurgitated food, and guarding (up to 19 days). Young Black-footed Albatrosses fledge in 20-21 weeks and do not return to the breeding grounds until their third year, when they practice courtship and nesting behaviors, but do not breed until five years old.

Migration

After the young fully fledge in June and July, the Black-footed Albatross appears to scatter over the northern Pacific Ocean, but a few tracking data indicate patterns. Juveniles and non-breeders appear to move northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. A study in 2004/2005 found that post-breeding females (3 of 4) tended to remain in the eastern Pacific, while all males (5 of 5) moved into the western Pacific. More specific information on migratory behavior is needed.

  • 109,000
  • 82,000
Population Status Trends

An estimated 109,000 pairs of Black-footed Albatross nested in 2000. More than 75% of them used the Hawaiian archipelago, where local counts recorded a 9.6% decline in breeding populations between 1992 and 2001. At the rate of mortality caused by long-line fishing in the early 2000s (8,000 birds per year), the population was predicted to drop by 60% over three generations. In winter of 2006, the US Fish and Wildlife Service survey on Midway Atoll recorded 24,085 active nests, reflecting an 11% increase since 1996 for this survey.

Conservation Issues

The predicted decline of the Black-footed Albatross prompted BirdLife/IUCN to list it as Endangered since 2003. Hawaii considers it Threatened, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a Conservation Concern and a Focal Species (2005), with a Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses Conservation Action Plan due out in Summer of 2007.
All breeding sites in the United States are protected as either a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge or a Seabird Sanctuary by the State of Hawaii.

The conservation of this species is all the more critical because of its importance to native Hawaiian culture. For the Hawaiians, the Black-footed Albatross, or Ka'upu, is the incarnation of the spirit of plants and planting, who returns each fall, bringing rain. The loss of the albatross would be devastating to this traditional culture.

The greatest threats to the Black-footed Albatross have been from interactions with commercial fisheries in the North Pacific. In the 1980s, one study estimated over 2% of the total population of Black-footed Albatrosses was annually killed by driftnet fisheries. Driftnets were subsequently phased out in 1992. Long-line fisheries, though, can be equally destructive. Since the 1950s, long-line fishing has been used extensively to catch popular seafood like tuna and shark. The effects on seabirds have been devastating, especially for albatrosses. In the mid-1990s, the Hawaiian long-line fishery for swordfish killed an estimated 4,500 Black-footed Albatrosses a year. The albatrosses are killed in these fisheries when they get entangled while feeding on baited hooks. Other threats include pollution, plastic ingestion, exotic predators (cats and rats) on their nesting grounds, and natural disasters, especially high waves associated with typhoons.

Long-lining has been banned within 50 nautical miles of the Hawaiian archipelago, but other long-line fisheries continue, especially where this species forages and winters over much of the rest of the north Pacific. New devices that conceal baited hooks seem to be an effective way of reducing seabird deaths. Fishing at night, storing fish by-products (offal), and bird-scaring lines have proven more effective. Similar methods should be employed wherever long-line fisheries are found to lead to seabird deaths.

What You Can Do

Look for the Black-footed Albatross in the summer off the Pacific Coast. These seabirds and many other species can be seen from bird-watching boats out of several California harbors.

Know how your seafood is caught or produced. Some fishing methods kill fewer seabirds than others. Read Audubon's overviews of long-line fisheries and seafood guide.

Participate in a beach clean-up, and support the efforts of groups like the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, centered at the University of California, Davis. The International Coastal Cleanup estimated that about 80% of marine debris collected in 2002 came from onshore sources. 

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Onley, Derek and Paul Scofield. Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Whittow, G. Causey. 1993. Black-footed Albatross (Diomedea nigripes). In The Birds of North America, No. 65 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.

Conservation Status References

BirdLife International. "Species factsheet: Phoebastria nigripes." 2007. Accessed 14 June 2007.

"Record Albatross Numbers Tallied at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge." News Release: PIEA 06-04 (January 25, 2006). Pacific Islands External Affairs Office, US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2 Pages. Accessed 14 June 2007.

Whittow, G. Causey. 1993. Black-footed Albatross (Diomedea nigripes). In The Birds of North America, No. 65 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.