Cathrine Prenot: How a Fool Bird Regained its Footing. August 11, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cathrine Prenot
Aboard Bell M. Shimada
July 17-July 30, 2016

Mission: 2016 California Current Ecosystem: Investigations of hake survey methods, life history, and associated ecosystem

Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast from Newport, OR to Seattle, WA

Date: August 11, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge: N/A

Science and Technology Log

Marine Mammal Excluder Net on the Bell M. Shimada.
Marine Mammal Excluder Net on the Bell M. Shimada.

Unreeling the nets behind the ship and trawling is the equivalent of ringing a dinner bell at sea. We may not even be in sight of land, but as soon as the fishermen begin to unroll the huge nets, birds begin descending from the skies, appearing in the distance, and gliding on their wings over the waves.

Black Footed Albatross. Photo By Kathryn Willingham
Black Footed Albatross. Photo By Kathryn Willingham

The birds are arriving in hopes of getting a part of the catch or the bycatch. They will patiently wait until fish that have been measured and weighed are tossed overboard, and were particularly fond of Walleye Pollock liver from the Oscar Dyson. Sometimes marine mammals like Pacific White Sided Dolphins will also show up, but all fishing operations stop when they are in the waters around the ship—we don’t want to encourage them to associate nets with dinner.

White Sided Pacific Dolphins. Photo By Kathryn Willingham
Pacific White Sided Dolphins. Photo By Kathryn Willingham

Some of my favorite birds to watch are the albatross. They are enormous, with a six foot wingspan and feet wide enough to surf in the wake of the ship before splashing down. All of the albatross I saw were Black Footed, but one of the scientists on the ship, Ryan Shama from the West Coast Groundfish Observer Program, told me to keep an eye out for birds that looked like a black footed albatross but with a bright bubble gum pink bill. These were the “vulnerable” Short Tailed Albatross, and there were only about 4,750 in the world—up from 25 individuals in 1954.

Black Footed Albatross. Photo By Kathryn Willingham
Black Footed Albatross. Photo By Kathryn Willingham

I got pretty excited a few times, but evidently their bills are REALLY pink, not just pink-ish.

Short tailed albatross populations are rebounding after a pretty devastating 200 years. They were collected for food, but their numbers really declined through feather hunting, which was fueled by a ladies’ fashion craze.

Photo from here.
Photo from here.
Photo from here.

To give you an idea of the scale of this craze, below is the full bird count from two afternoon walks in 1886 through the streets of NYC by Frank Chapman, an Ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History:

“Robin, four. Brown thrush, one. Bluebird, three. Blackburnion warbler, one. Blackpoll warbler, three. Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three. Scarlet tanager, three. White-bellied swallow, one. Bohemian waxwing, one. Waxwing, twenty-three. Great northern shrike, one. Pine grosbeak, one. Snow bunting, fifteen. Tree sparrow, two. White-throated sparrow, one. Bobolink, one. Meadow lurk, two. Baltimore oriole, nine. Purple grackle, five. Bluejay, five. Swallow-tailed flycatcher, one. Kingbird, one. Kingfisher, one. Pileated woodpecker, one. Red-headed woodpecker, two. Golden-winged woodpecker, twenty-one. Acadian owl, one. Carolina dove, one. Pinnated grouse, one. Ruffed grouse, two. victorian hatQuail, sixteen. Helmet quail, two. Sanderling, five Big yellowlegs, one. Green heron, one. Virginia rail one. Laughing gull, one. Common tern, twenty-one. Black tern. one. Grebe, seven.” (from here )

All of these birds were on women’s hats. Of the 700 hats he counted, 543 were decorated with feathers.

And then let’s start looking at the specifics of the decimation of the albatross population:

“From the mid-19th to the early 20th century it was highly fashionable to wear extravagant hats decorated with feathers, wings and even whole birds. In 1875, the magazine Harper’s Bazaar described one such hat: “The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.” The demand for feathered headwear was enormous. By 1886 more than five million birds were harvested annually for the millinery trade in North America. Large albatross feathers were popular, and hunters harvested hundreds of tons of feathers annually—first from Japanese islands and then from Northwestern Hawaiian islands where albatrosses breed. In 1904 Japanese hunters killed 285,000 albatrosses on Lisianski Island in six months, then another 70,000 albatrosses on Laysan Island that same year—just for feathers. All over the world many species of birds were hunted for their plumage, to near extinction.”  (from here)

The Short Tailed Albatross nested almost exclusively on one island in Japan, and “feather hunters” killed an estimated 5 million birds over many years. The birds wouldn’t move as the feather hunters moved among them, clubbing them to death, giving them the name “Ahodori” in Japanese, which means “fool bird.”

From here. The site is also a good read.
From here.

But you can read all about it in Adventures in a Blue World: “The Fool Regains its Footing.”

Adventures in a Blue World: The Fool Regains its Footing. CNP
Adventures in a Blue World: The Fool Regains its Footing. CNP

Personal Log

The scenery on the last day at sea was pretty wonderful. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is absolutely gorgeous, and although we traveled a lot of it under the cover of darkness, I went up on the flying bridge at dusk and loved watching huge container ships in the channel next to us. After being on the largest ship for two weeks—with smaller fishing vessels keeping about a mile or more radius and having the ocean be the whole world around you, it was somewhat comforting to see land on either side and ships many times more massive than us cruising calmly by. Once day broke, we got to see constant ferry traffic between the islands around Seattle, and tons of small boats scurrying around us like ants.

As you might note from the dates, I am no longer out at sea. We pulled into the port of Seattle on August 30, and I made a beeline to the airport thanks to some of the scientists, and got home in time to start work the next day.   I am SO very thankful for the crew, Corps, and scientists from the Shimada for making me feel so welcome and including me in all of their work. I have a few more cartoons to go, so will continue to blog, but I won’t be able to report to you in as much detail all of the “freedom of the seas” that I was granted on the Shimada.

It's a tough life, being a Teacher at Sea!
It’s a tough life, being a Teacher at Sea!

 Did You Know?

Pacific White Sided Dolphins are extremely acrobatic and live and travel together in groups of up to 100 individuals!


Interesting articles on the bird hat craze. This one, and this one, and oh yeah, one more.

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