The largest out of three species of albatross that occur in the North Pacific Ocean, the Short-tailed albatross is best distinguished by its large, bubblegum-pink beak with a bluish tip. Named because of their short, white tails with a black bar at its end, these seabirds have blackish brown feathers to start with, and legs that are pale pinkish-yellow. The feathers turn white as they mature, leaving only black edges on the wings and just a little of the dull orange color on the bird’s crown and nape.
This seabird was once widely distributed throughout the North Pacific Ocean near Taiwan and Japan. Currently it nests on Minami-kojima and Torishima in the Senkaku Islands of Japan and is found along the coasts of China, South Korea, Alaska, eastern Russia, in the north west of the Hawaiian Islands and North America’s western coasts. This pelagic species primarily inhabits open oceans. The birds build their nests on the bare ground of islands, in locations that are surrounded by medium to high cliffs.
The Short-tailed albatross feeds at night or in the early morning and when it is competing for food it is usually the dominant one among other seabirds like the Black-footed albatross and the Northern fulmar, and other species that congregate around fishing vessels. This bird is usually silent when at sea, but when engaged in competing for food, it makes a number of sounds including croaking, shrieking and gargling. They use rapid bill-clattering, which is like a rattling sound, in courtship and for threat displays against intruders. This species migrates in the autumn, generally reaching the nesting colonies by October. Non-breeding birds and failed breeding pairs depart the colonies in winter and spring and range around the North Pacific Ocean. The successful breeders remain with their nesting colony until May or June.
This species is monogamous and usually mates for life. The usual mating displays include a range of postures, such as bill-circling, sky-pointing, touching flanks with the bill and spreading their wings fully. Birds that have already been paired do not engage in such elaborate displays, meeting usually at the nest site, which they reuse for several years in a row. October is the start of the breeding season, and eggs are laid in late October to early November, with the hatching of chicks taking place in late December to early January. These birds are colonial nesters. They make their nest out of soil and pieces of vegetation, lining the cup with grass. A single large egg is laid each year or each second year. Both parents incubate during a 65-day period. Chicks are fed by both parents and remain flightless and dependent on their parents for about 5 months, before going out to sea. They may return to their colony when they are 4 years old, and will first breed between the ages of 5 and 8 to 9 years old.
One of the primary threats to the Short-tailed albatross is habitat loss. An active volcanic island is the location of the main nesting colony. Eruptions have meant a decline in the population as well as the loss of suitable habitat for nesting. These birds are sometimes entangled or hooked in longline fishing gear, leading to drowning. They can also drown in fishing equipment that has been abandoned in the ocean. Streamers on longline fishing vessels in Alaska have resulted in a major reduction albatross by-catch. These birds are also vulnerable to pollution. They frequently ingest plastic debris and suffer from contamination from oil spills.
The IUCN Red List gives the total population size of the Short-tailed albatross as 2,200-2,500 individuals, equating roughly to 1,500-1,700 mature birds. This includes estimates of the species in these areas: Japan - 100-10,000 breeding pairs and 50-1,000 individuals on migration; on Torishima Island - 426 breeding pairs; on Minami-kojima (Senkaku Islands) - 442 birds. Overall, currently Short-tailed albatrosses are classified as Vulnerable (VU), however, their numbers today are increasing.