The Japanese Albatross; An Endearing Seabird

The dictionary explains the meaning of the word Albatross as an oceanic bird, large in size, that have narrow and elongated kinds of wings. The albatrosses are found mainly in the Southern oceans with three kinds in the North Pacific.” The word albatross is the English translation of the Spanish and Portuguese word Alcatraz which means “pelican.”

By USFWS - Pacific Region (Short-tailed Albatross Chick 2012) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Understanding the Japanese Albatross

The Short-tailed Japanese Albatross is called Aho-Dori in Japan. Its scientific name is Phoebastria Albatrus (Diomedea albatrus). Its Order is Procellariiformes and its Family is Diomedeidae. 

The albatross family Diomedeidae is made up of 22 species. One species is found near the equator, three in the northern hemisphere and eighteen are found in the southern hemisphere. The short-tailed albatross, one of the species found in the northern hemisphere, is the target of the Yamashina Institute to preserve it from extinction. The two other species of albatross found in the northern hemisphere are the Black-footed Albatross, and the Laysan Albatross. Both species occasionally can be seen in some islands of Japan. It is the short-tailed one that the Japanese government is protecting. 

Japanese Albatross Descriptors

The Aho-Dori is a medium-sized albatross with a body weight of 4.3 kg to 8.5 kg. (9.5 lbs.-18.7 lbs.). Its wingspan can spread from 215 cm to 230 cm (85 in-91in). Named for its short white tail, this seabirds’ tail can measure from 14 cm to 15.2 cm (5.5 in – 6.0 in) long Its length can be from 84 cm to 94 cm (33 in-37 in). Its large and pink bill can be 12.7 cm to 15.2 cm (5.0 in -6.0 in) long.

Its plumage as a juvenile is an all-over brown color, but when it reaches adulthood, it turns white with black flight feathers with a band of black on its tail. Its nape and crown are yellow or dull orange. The feet of the adults are pale blue, and their large pink bills get a blue tip with age.

The Life of the Japanese Albatross

The Short-tailed albatross spends over 80% of its life at sea and visits land only when they need to breed. Up in the air, they can move at a speed of 130 km-140 km/ hour. The mighty albatross can fly 10,000 miles in a single journey without expending energy. They make a highly dynamic, specialized gliding kind of maneuver in flight that enables them to travel for miles without stopping.  

Albatrosses use their large wingspans to fly long distances without using muscles or energy. To keep them alive in their long flights, they produce a stomach oil made up of triglycerides and wax esters that is stored in their digestive system. 

The Reproduction Process

The female and male birds have a mating dance before becoming a pair. They court using vocalizations. Their bond as a pair lasts a lifetime. The birds arrive at their nesting sites by mid-October. Interestingly, the pairs return to the same grass-lined nest from the previous years. The couple takes shifts incubating their single, large egg for as long as 65 days. 

As for their eggs, they are characterized by being dirty white with red spots. They measure approximately 116 by 74 millimeters (4.6 in x 2.9 in).  The birds alternate in shifts to look for food. They usually do this at night as they look mainly for squid. They do eat fish, krill, and crustaceans too. They dive swooping down onto the surface of the water to catch food.  

By January and February, the chicks hatch and are fed regurgitated food from both parents. Between May and June, the chick’s feathers are long enough to fly. The breeders also leave by May and June. The failed breeders and non-breeders leave before the eggs have hatched.  The young chicks must wait to be 6 years old to breed. By that time, they would have already found a mate with whom a lifelong bond will be established. The short-tailed albatross can live up to 60 years and beyond. The Aho-Dori albatross has a low birth rate but also a low death rate. 

A National Treasure

Also called Steller’s Albatross, the short-tailed albatross is considered in Japan a Special Natural Treasure, as specified under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. 

It was an American researcher who arrived on the island of Torishima in 1949 who declared that the species of the Aho-Dori was extinct. But luckily, there were 50 birds that most likely survived at sea for many years and who were mostly juveniles who reached sexual maturity and who went back to the island to breed. These were then treated with care. 

It has become a critically endangered species, so as specified by law, it is placed under the care of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It was classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List 2007. Both Japan and the United States have listed the short-tailed albatross as Endangered. 

By USFWS Endangered Species [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In September 2012, an international meeting of biologists and environmental scientists distributed the “100 Most Endangered Species in the World” and the short-tail albatross was listed in it.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Zoological Society of London submitted the study. 

Also in September 2012, at a global meeting in Korea of biologists and other environmental scientists, a list was distributed of the "100 Most Endangered Species in the World", referring to all life, animal, and plant. It was under the auspices of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the Zoological Society of London.

In that list, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper was positioned as number #10, making it the "most endangered bird species on Earth" in the opinion of that group, and sadly a candidate, unless something is done, for extinction.

An Easy Target For Abuse For Goods

There used to be an abundance of short-tailed albatrosses, but they soon became almost extinct.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the birds were hunted down for their feathers which were used for hats, beddings, and clothing. 

The Short-tailed Albatross is considered the largest seabird in the Pacific. The bird is easily caught because it is so large, and it cannot take off rapidly especially if it is on level ground. It waddles in a staggering manner and for it to fly it needs to launch itself by leaping off a cliff. They spend more energy on take-off and landing than in flying.

Protected Habitats

Torishima Island is where the seabirds congregate as their breeding ground and the area is also now designated as a Natural Treasure or Natural Conservation Area. Torishima, a volcanic Japanese island In the Pacific Ocean, is part of the Izu Islands. It literally means “Bird Island.” It is uninhabited. In the 1930’s, the Yamashita Institute of Ornithology took an active role in researching and attempting to save the local seabird species of the short-tailed albatross. The birds had dwindled to an estimated number of 50 birds in 1933. 

The Japan Meteorological Agency set up a weather station and a volcanic research station on the island, but these were removed in 1965 due to strong volcanic activity and earthquakes. Torishima was made a protected bird sanctuary in 1954. Only scientists with special permissions can go to the island. Tourists who sail around the island to view the birds are not allowed to disembark. 

Another place where the albatross breed is the group of Senkaku Islands. The Minami Kojima island (part of the Senkaku Islands) is one of the breeding places of the rare short-tailed albatross Albatrosses usually breed on islands where there are no land mammals to threaten their eggs. Rats and feral cats can directly attack Albatross chicks and eggs. Each female lays one egg per year. Some females even skip a year and they do not lay their eggs to help restore their body condition. Since the albatross breed on land where there are no mammals, they have not developed any protective instinct or any sense of vigilance towards their young or themselves.  The Japanese culture and tradition gave the bird the name Aho-Dori meaning (dumb bird) because it does not fear terrestrial predators. 

Japanese scientists have long believed that only one species of short-tailed albatross exists in Japan but there has been a recent discovery made by research teams from the University of Tokyo and Tottori University that the birds at Senkaku Islands are of different species from those breeding in Torishima. The researchers reported that although identical in appearance, the birds found in Torishima and the Senkaku Islands differ enough to be classified as separate species. 

By USFWS Endangered Species [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Numbers Going Up

The Japanese Ministry of Environment has reported in 2012 that there remain about 3000 short-tailed albatrosses alive on Tokyo’s Torishima Island. Toho University Prof. Hiroshi Hasegawa, who has overseen the protection of the birds on the island for more than 30 years, said that the current number is due to the efforts of enthusiasts and their perseverance on the preservation of the Short-tailed Albatross. They started with less than 200 birds more than 30 years ago so the increase in numbers of the birds was met with much excitement. The number of birds is expected to increase some more to at least 5000 by 2018. 

There has been a plan to move some albatross chicks from Torishima to Mukojima in the Ogasawara Islands just to help them increase in numbers. Also, another reason for the move is to protect the birds in case of a volcanic eruption since Torishima is an active volcano island. In 1902, and the entire population of 125 people perished due to a volcanic eruption on Torishima.  A landslide can easily happen anytime where the albatrosses breed and to avoid the loss of all the birds, an effort has been made to move the birds to a safer, new nesting site on Mukojima Island. 

In 2008, 10 one-month old albatross chicks were moved from Torishima to Mukojima and they were artificially raised. The next year another 15 chicks were moved.  The birds have been tracked with navigational GPS devices. They were hoping that the birds would return to Mukojima during the breeding season. As of February 2011, it was noted that some birds have successfully returned to Mukojima.

Caught Red Handed

There were two men who mass-slaughtered the birds for commercial purposes. Koga Tatsushiro, a Japanese businessman, went to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in 1882 to develop it for business. Catching the rare albatross seabirds for their plumage/feather type or for taxidermy became his main activity. In 1897,10,000 kilograms of down, feathers were collected with a value of 6,800 yen. By 1899, they collected 51,000 kilograms of down feathers with a value of 42,500 yen. However, by 1900 the production of albatross feathers declined because the bird’s population dramatically suffered and decreased. 

Koga Tatsushiro was, ironically, awarded the Blue-Ribbon Medal of honor in 1909 in recognition of his efforts in the development of Senkaku islands and his marine products but his business almost drove the birds to extinction. Another entrepreneur who contributed to the massive tragic fate of the albatross this time in Torishima Island was Han’emon Tamaoki. Just like Koga Tatsushiro, he amassed enormous wealth based on the gathering of albatross feathers.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (young short-tailed albatross Uploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An Outsider’s Story of the Albatross

The popular poem published in 1798, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, relates the experiences of a sailor or a mariner who has returned from a long sea voyage. 

The mariner narrates a story of a journey in a ship and how it is a good omen to see an albatross. It is believed that an albatross carries the soul of a dead sailor and if you see one, do not harm it.  The albatross is there to protect the seamen from harm and it will bring needed winds for the ship to sail. If you shoot or kill an albatross, a curse was promised to befall the entire crew. 

Perhaps if this story became popular when the Japanese albatross were being put down in huge numbers, and those who listened believed the superstition, the Aho-Dori would not be a threatened species.