Thursday, April 10, 2014

Birdlore: Albatross: The Lucky Charm?

Albatross, the great wanderer of the southern seas. 

This bird, often romanticized or cursed in literature, belongs to the Diomedeidae family.  They have the longest wingspan of any bird species at up to 12 feet.  These amazing birds can travel incredible distances in very short periods of time by utilizing a flying technique called dynamic soaring, which involves gliding on wind up-drafts above waves for more lift and maintaining flight with little to no effort.

A Wandering Albatross skimming over the ocean’s surface. (photo from the Wikimedia Files)
Albatrosses, because of their prolonged flying above the oceans, feed on organisms found on the ocean surface such as: fish, cephalopods (squid), krill, crabs, and more.  They will feast on carrion floating on the water surface as well.  They tend to hang around ships to take advantage of any fish waste left behind.

Perhaps largely due to the reliance on the wind for transportation for both Albatrosses and sailors, their frequent interactions would eventually lead to the Albatross becoming an integral part of maritime superstition. 

During the Age of the Sail, seamen were highly superstitious.  Life at sea was very dangerous and difficult.  Many behaviors or habits we wouldn’t give much thought to in this day and age would be taboo onboard a sailing ship as it was believed to bring bad luck (No whistling, women, red heads, or bananas on board; don’t set sail on certain days; don’t utter words like drowning, goodbye, good luck, or pig; no cutting/trimming hair, beards, and nails while at sea).

The Albatross is both a sign of good and bad luck.  The main belief is that the Albatross carries the souls of dead mariners.  Sighting one flying overhead was considered good luck as the sailors believed that the mariner soul the Albatross carried had come to protect them from harm or bring needed winds for the ship’s sails.  Some sailors believed an Albatross sighting would be a bad omen as it would mean someone was doomed to die in the near future.  Regardless of which way a sailor would view the Albatross, the shooting and killing of an Albatross was a promised curse to befall the entire crew. 

The poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrates both sides of luck the Albatross represents.  Following are excerpts from that epic poem:

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

Translation: An old mariner pulls aside a young man going to a wedding to tell a story.

'The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

To help translate the above, the sailors sailed from the harbor in fine weather, then a terrible storm drove them south to be surrounded by ice fields.  An Albatross came and they offered the bird food.  The Albatross flew around until the ice split and the ship’s helmsmen steered them out.  A good wind caught their sails to continue their journey.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'

'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?'—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

Translation:  A mysterious fog shrouds the ship.  They cannot see.  A sailor panics and shoots the Albatross.

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

The sailor realizes his woe.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Translation:  The crew is now trapped on calm water with no breeze to carry them away.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

Translation:  The sailor is made to wear the Albatross to display his shame by the rest of the crew.

The story continues on.  The cursed mariner is the sole survivor of a doomed ship and crew.  He lives the rest of his life in great pain and the only relief he may receive is by sharing his tale as he does with the young man that was on his way to a wedding.

Normally, I would share the whole story here, but you would still be reading the poem by the time my next bird lore blog came out.  So, the entirety of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be found here:

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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