There is one mosquito-borne disease that may afflict albatross chicks. The symptoms are crusty growths on bare areas, typically the face, bill, legs and feet. This is avian pox. If a chick contracts the disease when he is very young and still has a lot of growing to do, the formations on the bill may result in permanent deformity. Mosquitoes are most prevalent in rainy years, and they survive best in areas that do not get much of a breeze. Chicks in nest areas surrounded by vegetation are the most likely to get bitten. The chicks on ocean bluffs with sea breezes blowing most of the time are less likely to get avian pox.
Several years ago I noticed the pox on this chick when he was about 20 days old. As his bill grew and the pox lesions covered his bill, the top bill grew to the side so the ends did not meet. The parents continued to feed him, so he was able to grow and eventually fledge, but the malformation may have resulted in an inability to grab and hold on to food successfully. It could also have resulted in dehydration, since moisture was lost from the inside of his mouth.
Out of 18 chicks this year, I have seen 4 with very small lesions at the top of their bills, one with a scab on his eyelid and a small lesion at the top of the bill, and one who was severely affected. Fortunately, the pox did not affect the growth of his bill.
These photos show the progression of avian pox on this chick:
For a few days, the chick was holding his head in an odd position. Sometimes he would spin in a circle keeping his head at this unusual angle. I had never seen this behavior before and I was beginning to think that he would not recover from his affliction.
A few days after the next photo was taken, the chick wandered far away from the nest. Both parents were sitting near the original nest site and could not see the chick. The chick did not call to them because his eyes were covered by crusty growths and he appeared to be blind and did not know that they had arrived. The next day he moved even further away, probably rolling down a hill, and ended up in a greenbelt between houses. In both cases, if he had been left there the parents might have assumed that he was gone and would not have returned to feed him again. That would have meant a slow death for the chick. On both days he was returned to the nest area where his parents could feed him.
From about mid-March on, I rarely see a parent with a chick. They have to spend so much time looking for food, they show up just long enough to feed the chick and leave. However, at some point during the two days the chick wandered away and also the following day, I saw one or both parents with this chick. I watched one feeding that was fascinating. I could not film it because the parent was very jumpy, so I used binoculars and stayed far away. The observer’s equivalent of a doctor’s rule of “First, do no harm,” is “First, do not scare a bird away.” The worst thing that I could do is to scare off a valuable meal for any chick, and especially for one who is physically impaired.
The chick was sitting in front of the mother but could not see her. Normally, the chick begs to be fed by vocalizing and by tapping the parent’s bill with his own. The parent will not feed the chick without this behavior. In this case, the chick could not even see his mother. He knew she was near him, so he was swinging his head wildly from side to side. The mother seemed to understand his predicament and would occasionally bend down so the chick could not avoid coming into contact with her bill. Once the chick knew where her bill was, the feeding process could then proceed.
As I said, one or both parents were with the chick every time I checked the nest for three days in a row. I think they may have groomed some of the old crusty formations off of his eyes, because after they left he could see well enough to stay within sight of his nest.
April 27, 2013
Every time I check him now the scabs are smaller.
It is important for people to realize that even a chick with such horrendous disfigurement can recover from this disease. In 2004 a chick with avian pox was taken from his nest by someone visiting the Ka’ena Point albatross colony on Oahu. This person brought him to Sea Life Park, which would not take him because the people there understood that avian pox could spread to other seabirds in the park. The chick was ultimately euthanized at the Hawaii Humane Society. He may well have survived if he had simply been left in his nest.
I can recommend two good articles about avian pox in Laysan albatrosses. Both can be found at http://www.pacificrimconservation.com. This is the website of Pacific Rim Conservation, a private company which conducts research and advises on wildlife management in Hawaii. Dr. Lindsay Young, one of the co-owners, supervises the two Laysan albatross colonies on Oahu, and is someone I can always go to with my “Did you ever see….” questions about albatrosses.
Young, L. C., and E. A. VanderWerf. 2008. Prevalence of avian pox virus and effect on the fledging success of Laysan Albatross. Journal of Field Ornithology 79:93–98.
VanderWerf, E.A., K.A. Swindle, and L.C. Young. 2005. Pox virus in Laysan Albatross at Ka`ena Point, O`ahu: How can we help? `Elepaio 65:1-7.