I have said before that nobody really knows if an albatross can recognize a relative. They do have a very good sense of smell, something which is quite unusual for birds other than carrion eaters. Is it possible that they can recognize individuals by smell? If so, they may feel more comfortable around their relatives. This came to mind when my neighbor, Marion McHenry, told me that her chick has had visits from his 4-year old sibling.
An albatross observer can tell you that the chicks often object to having strangers sit near them. When they are uncomfortable around an adult they often assume a defensive posture, tucking their faces into their bodies:
In this photo taken by Marion, we can see how relaxed Peg the chick is, even though older sibling Junior is sitting as close as a parent would.
Marion told me that a parent was sitting nearby during one of these visits. The parents of these two birds are a couple I know as Mr. and Mrs. Clackypants. My sister named Mr. Clackypants when he was being banded. He objected loudly to the lack of respect shown to an albatross of his stature, and clacked his bill together vigorously to make his feelings known.
Mr. Clackypants, also known as KP639, was originally banded in December of 1989 at the end of the road where his nest is located. We cannot tell the age of an albatross, so when an adult is banded he is assumed to be 3 years old. However, he was one of the first albatrosses to nest in Princeville, in the 1989-1990 season. He must have been at least 5 when he initially nested, so he is probably 30 or older. That nest failed. He was rebanded in November of 2004. Sometimes the original bands start to show wear and tear and need to be replaced. He received his official USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) band along with an auxiliary band that can be read by someone using binoculars. We are missing a lot of data about their early nesting years, and we do not have more records for him until he nested with his current mate, KP676.
Speaking of Mrs. Clackypants, she was banded at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge as an adult in January of 1988. There is no record of her until the 1991-1992 season, when she nested with an unknown mate on the same street where her nest is located now, so she is probably at least 28. She had at least one chick before forming a bond with Mr. Clackypants. These two have been nesting together since at least 2004-2005. Peg is the sixth chick they have raised together since I have been observing them. They are exemplary parents, working tirelessly to feed their chicks. Marion has even observed the chick turning away from an offer of food, he was already so full from his last feeding. Mr. Clackypants is probably the father of other chicks in my neighborhood.
His nest area is located on a bluff that is a very popular landing and take-off spot for the local albatrosses. On two occasions he was seen jumping on females from female/female couples who went on to have fertile eggs, and their chicks fledged successfully. The male nesters are usually the first birds to return in November, and they will go after other females while they are waiting for their mates to return. There is a local male who most likely fathered the chick being raised by two females across the street from the yard where he and his mate are raising Sochi. My neighbor observed him mating with one of the females at the nest, and used binoculars to get his band number for me. Thanks, Brad!
Since the nests in Princeville are so spread out, we do not have as many fertilized eggs as the places where the nests are protected in fenced in areas. When some females return they run like crazy when approached by a male, so they are not very likely to have good eggs. It is always sad to see a couple sitting on their nest day after day, devoting hours of faithful incubation to a chickless egg. So thank you, Mr. Clackypants, and all of the other males who have helped our female/female couples to have fertile eggs. Your contribution to the survival of your species may be unintentional, but it is not unappreciated.