The New York Times reported a bit of good news this month. A Short-tailed Albatross was born on Midway Atoll. Midway, the atoll about half-way between San Francisco and Tokyo – and near where the Battle of Midway was fought during WWII – is now a wildlife refuge protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Midway is the home base for millions of Laysan Albatrosses, but very few Short-tailed Albatrosses.
That’s because Short-tailed Albatrosses were almost extirpated from the earth in the late 19th century. People liked their feathers, you see, and hunters killed them in vast numbers to supply the market.
They were not the famed “Gooney Birds” of Midway that caused so much trouble to airmen stationed on the Atoll during WWII. By the early 1930′s short-tails were known to breed on only one Japanese island and, by the end of the War, were thought to be extinct. However, a few hardy birds wisely spent WWII at sea, survived, and returned to the Japanese Island in 1949. Until this month, not one pair was known to have bred on Midway, despite the fact that millions of its cousins Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses do breed there.
Around the same time humans were mindlessly hunting the short-tail version into extinction, we also began laying the first undersea cable between North America and Asia. Some of that work was done by an American cable-laying consortium which set up an outpost on Midway. Its workers promptly brought many non-native species to the Island to “improve” it. They improved it with canaries, cats, dogs, deciduous trees of all kinds, and – best of all – cockroaches, termites, and centipedes. When we humans set about improving a place, we do the whole job, not just a part of it.
When this “improvement” of Midway was brought to President Theodore Roosevelt’s attention, he promptly sent twenty-one marines to Midway with orders to hold the atoll for the United States and stop the “improvement” before it killed all the birds. After almost a century of use as a Naval air station, the atoll became a national wildlife refuge in 1988 and is now safe for the albatrosses.
It is fitting that the United States protects Midway and has now hosted a new short-tailed baby. Short-tails used to breed on another Pacific atoll, Enewetak. We touched off forty some odd nuclear bombs on that 2.5 square mile atoll where the Short-tailed albatross once bred. We took care to remove all the people, but I imagine a great many birds were turned into elementary particles during the time we used the atoll to conduct nuclear tests. We’ve improved it too. We scraped off as much radioactive soil as we could, buried in a big hole on the atoll, and covered with a huge concrete mound. People have returned but, if I were a bird, I’d be hesitant to believe that we’re through with our improvements. Besides, as you can see, the concrete bunker doesn’t leave many good nesting sites.
So, welcome to a new citizen and may he or she have a long life soaring over northern Pacific waters, knowing it will have a home on Midway to come home to in a few years when it’s time to breed.