Cameras Reveal Albatross Feeding Habits

What do you get when an albatross tracks a killer whale? A clue into the foraging behavior of a bird that travels hundreds of miles for food.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Another animal in danger these days was an inspiration for poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the turn of the 18th century when he composed "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Ah! Well a-day! what evil looks I had from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung.

RAZ: Today, the albatross, that romantic harbinger of good, or as some say, ill, is in trouble. It's been estimated that fishing fleets kill 100,000 of the birds every year. Almost every species of albatross on earth is considered threatened. Our producer, Kate Davidson, has the rest of the story.

KATE DAVIDSON: One of the scientists trying to protect the albatross is Phil Trathan. He's the head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey. One day, he was huddled on the frigid island of South Georgia, counting albatross nests.

Dr. PHIL TRATHAN (Head of Conservation Biology, British Antarctic Survey): And then there's this sudden noise like a Concord going over my head. And into my peripheral vision, there was a black-browed albatross coming across, and it was just the noise of the wind over its wings. It just sounded like a jet aircraft. It was phenomenal.

DAVIDSON: These birds fly hundreds of miles in search of food, and scientists have always wondered just how they find that food in a vast and featureless ocean. So Trathan and his colleagues fitted four albatrosses with cameras the size of a lipstick, and they had these albatross-cams snap thousands of pictures.

Dr. TRATHAN: In these 28,000 images, we had a lot of pictures of the ocean, pictures of icebergs, lots of pictures of the darkness where it was pitch black but occasionally pictures of the moon and then one phenomenal image that we were really excited about, which was of a killer whale just surfacing.

DAVIDSON: Scientists think the albatrosses may have been tracking the killer whale, using it to scare up food. So it's just a snapshot, but Phil Trathan says that to conserve the albatross, scientists need to understand how it feeds. It's a tool, perhaps, to keep Coleridge from having the last word.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) And the good south wind still blew behind, but no sweet bird did follow, nor any day for food or play came to the mariners' hollo!

RAZ: A reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Our story was produced by Kate Davidson.

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