Updated on June 28, 2018
The Safina Center
80 North Country Road
Setauket, NY 11733
Updated on June 28, 2018
By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow
Makana, a twelve-year-old Laysan albatross, seemed contemplative as she took in her surroundings. A short distance away were hundreds of fish darting through a kelp forest of wide shimmering strands, each easily ten times taller than she was. She saw colorful sea stars and anemones. She saw crabs. Her vista was richly pelagic.
But not exclusively.
Unlike the environs of any other bird belonging to twenty-plus species of albatross, Makanaʻs observations also included ceilings, elevators and people. Lots of people—many of whom were staring at her. Above her head were muted electric lights. Under her feet was a padded mat on a grey cart, it being the vehicle she had ridden to this spot.
Makana is the star of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Albatross Encounter,” a daily opportunity for visitors to get a brief glimpse of a mōlī—the name by which her clan is known in her home state of Hawai’i. For most guests, she will be the only albatross they will ever see in their lifetimes.
Nikki Odorisio, the aviculturalist/animal behavior specialist and the happy push behind Makana’s cart, spoke to the crowd with contagious enthusiasm. She told them about Makana’s wing injury and inability to fly, about why she was a resident at the facility and what kind of care she got, about how she was an ambassador for her wild counterparts, about plastic pollution and recycling.
Toward the end of Nikki’s introduction, Makana opened wide her six-foot-plus wingspan. The audience oohed and aahed, surprised. Since albatross fold their wings in four places (fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder,) when folded they can look deceptively small.
Makana shared a synchronous sky moo with her trainer. Nikki grinned, waved to the crowd, and casually rolled the cart away. They boarded a freight elevator and returned to Makana’s rooftop enclosure.
How does a person prepare such a magnificent seabird—built for long-distance travel and decades on the winds of solitude—for enclosed places and noisy crowds? “Sometimes she looks at me like I have four heads,” said Nikki. But a patient process has paid off, complete with toys, a pool, treats and the deepest respect for this ancient iconic bird. Monterey is the only known facility in the country—and likely the world—to have successfully kept an albatross in human care for any extended time. In this case, that’s twelve years and counting.
Think that’s impressive? Check this out: Makana now has roommates. Integrating Sula, a red-footed booby, into the mōlī enclosure proved to be a relatively easy task. But a second albatross? That took the better part of a year.
Alika—which can mean “protector” or “guardian” in Hawaiian—arrived to California from Hawaiʻi in July of 2017. Like Makana (“gift”) Alika had an injured wing and would not have been able to survive in the wild. At first she seemed stressed, and was unable or unwilling to take hand-fed meals. Over time, however, she got more comfortable with Nikki. One thing she absolutely continued to refuse? It sounds silly to say about a seabird, but she would not go into the pool.
“We tried special toys, my sitting on an island in the water, positive reinforcement, videos on the phone of other albatross swimming,” said Nikki. “Now, a year later, she’s calming down and her feather quality is improving drastically. She goes through all the bathing motions on land, and gets a shower four or five days a week,” said Nikki.
Alika had to be prepared to have roommates. “She couldn’t move until she was super comfortable on the cart,” said Nikki.
Once Makana’s enclosure was enlarged, it was time to introduce the two mōlī. On April third they began experimenting with a new setup. “We divided the enclosure in half with Makana and Sula on one side,” said Nikki. They called the eye-level divider a “howdy wall,” built so the birds could choose to see each other or not, as they preferred. “Alika is so tall she could easily see over the wall and would watch and watch. She was super intrigued,” said Nikki. The staff added a ramp so Makana could see over the wall too. “When everybody seemed good we took down the howdy wall and put up a curtain we could close if need be. We thought we would need to separate them after dark but they were so mellow they spent the night together the very first night,” said Nikki.
“I’m a happy crier, and I cried that day,” she said. “When they leaned over and touched beaks, I was a sloppy mess. From that day on it has been peachy.” The birds preened, hung out, peacefully co-existed.
Did they ever exhibit any territoriality? “There were a few food issues we had to work through,” said Nikki. “Alika is younger but definitely the more dominant. She also still thinks the water is evil and terrible, so if she got in Makana’s business, Makana could get in the water.” Those conflicts are resolved now. “Alika will stand on the edge and Makana will swim up and they play with each other,” Nikki said.
The birds sometimes work on tentative dance moves. “Both of them will occasionally try to get the other one to dance but usually the other one goes ‘I don’t get it.’ Alika will do a moo or a whinny or a bob, and Makana will go ‘I don’t want to’ and walks away. But at least she’s not dancing with humans as much as before, which is good,” said Nikki.
When Makana turned twelve, the Monterey Bay Aquarium team threw her a birthday, er, hatch-day party. “We made an ice cake that looked like it had squid arms with fish-shaped cubes with krill in it,” she said. “Makana didn’t want to play with it at the party, but later we watched her on live feed. She tugged on the tentacles, dropped the cake to the bottom of the pool and dove three feet down to get it,” said Nikki.
Nikki is deeply impressed with how smart the mōlī are. “I am surprised of all the different species how challenging working with albatross can be. They are highly intelligent and are the best at training humans,” she said. “I still get misty-eyed when I think about the bird Alika was when she came to us, and who she is now. She didn’t even know how to eat, and now she’s a hungry little hippo.”
Overall, Nikki considers it an honor to be working with Makana, Alika and Sula. “These high-level animals have made me a sharper trainer and caregiver,” she said. “They school me every time. They break me down and build me up again. I live a charmed life thanks to those three.”