A Woman Talking to Albatrosses About Monogamy

297 . . . can I call you 297?

I need someone to talk to, and both our partners are far away, foraging for squid and statistical data, respectively. And it gets lonely out here, surrounded by the growling ocean.

Your mate’s a wild one, 297. My arm’s still scarred where he drew blood before I could rubber-band his bill shut. I was trying to stick waterproof tape to his dorsal contour feathers before attaching a transmitter with Teflon ribbon. Lucky I raised my arm in time, because he was aiming for my nipple.

I look forward to seeing you every morning, 297, as I unzip my tent here on Punta Suarez, on the western side of Isla Española, and pick my way through the pack of marine iguanas gathered outside. Here I am in the Galápagos Islands studying your reproductive cycle, and wondering what my own husband’s up to. That big-eyed research assistant of his, Gretchen Raus-Krebl, with those “innocent” pigtails, was oddly ready to drop everything and return to Hawaii to redo that experiment of theirs, on beak dimensions in relation to extra-pair copulations in the Maui goose.

Tim and I were doing fieldwork when we met, analyzing the cries of snowy owls up in Alaska, a long time ago now it seems. What got to me about Tim was his wanting the same things I did, his urge to understand everything. Nowadays I feel like I understand about all I can take.

Every morning while my coffee boils, and waves pound the rocks, casting up momentary sculptures of foam, I use a solar panel–powered laptop to link to a communications satellite and download Tim’s e-mails, which used to be full of references to Gretchen Raus-Krebl but which nowadays somehow never mention her. Then I pour my coffee into a thermos and set off to work, walking uphill from the feather-strewn beach, stepping around the nest of a blue-footed booby that’s nested in the trail.

And every morning, when I reach the top of the hill, and pass that stern, prehistoric-faced tortoise who always hisses at me, I raise my Zeiss binoculars to survey your colony, your nesting site near the high, black cliffs. It’s always you I try to find first, 297, to make sure you’re still okay. Looking out for you keeps me from brooding, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Your mate’s coming back today. I know, because I’ve been tracking his position from the satellite data.

I watch a Galápagos hawk devouring the corpse of a lava lizard. Puddles on the runway reflect the sky . . .

Here comes 308 at last. Even at this distance, I can make out the golden gloss on his white head.

He glides into view, lands awkwardly, and rolls forward onto his chest. He hasn’t touched ground for months.

Now he’s looking around for you. When he approaches, you seem reluctant at first to yield custody of your chick, little 515.

Not so little any more.

308 hunches forward. 515 batters his father’s bill until a stream of regurgitated crustacean shoots down her beak. She seems content.

You and 308 can be very affectionate. Your first courtship ritual lasted months. My klutzy research assistant Rolf caught the whole thing on video camera last December.

But today your interaction is minimal, as when a couple gets up, looks at their watches, and then one of them sets off immediately so as not to be late for work.

Rolf was supposed to be here by now, but he’s been delayed in Ecuador. Some form of civil unrest there. Things are always going wrong for Rolf. It’s your shift now, 297, so you stagger away from the nest, leaving 308 in charge. You run forty yards into the wind, outstretched wings waving, feet slapping the ground, before getting airborne. You wheel and put the wind behind you, swinging north, averaging fifteen miles per hour. You have a microprocessor taped to your back, so I’ll be keeping track of you too.

Good luck.

###

If I wasn’t data-keeping, 308, I’d go mad, standing talking to albatrosses in the rain.

Shouldn’t have been out here alone so long. I’m not cut out to be Robinson Crusoe.

I don’t know why I’m not losing more weight.

Each morning I brew my coffee while hood mockingbirds mob me, perching on my hat and pecking around my shoes, entirely unfazed by my presence. I could reach out and touch them if it wasn’t illegal. Sometimes they even search inside my pockets, while great blue herons mince past, and iguanas sun themselves on the white beach, pudgy and colorful as rock stars. They seem lazy enough to a casual eye, but really the evolutionary pressure on this species is so intense, it took only a couple of el Niño years messing with their food supply to shrink their average body size twenty percent.

The el Niño events were bad for me and Rolf, too, forcing me to put off concluding this study several times, which I’m pretty sure delayed my being considered for tenure.

Well 308, you’d be glad to know that, by downloading satellite information to my laptop, I’ve been able to track 297’s itinerary precisely.

She’s flown to the Gulf of Guayaquil to forage. She’s been gone two weeks now.

308, I love the way you male albatrosses take turns looking after the fledglings. It takes two adult albatrosses to raise a chick. You albatrosses touch down on land only to breed. The rest of the time you’re free spirits. You can live for decades, in the course of which you might fly twenty-five million miles.

Species who live on small islands are theoretically more monogamous. Inbreeding may mean that those species have less biological diversity, so that the potential payoff from infidelity is reduced. Why bother being unfaithful with a man whose genes are similar to your partner’s? Maybe I’m lucky my husband lives on Maui.

The problem with that being that Gretchen Raus-Krebl’s from Pomerania or wherever.

297’s and yours was the most elaborate courtship ritual of any of the albatrosses on this island. I just watched Rolf’s video again on my laptop. Bill-duelling, neighing, snapping your bills like castanets, sexy sway-walking, head-bobbing. Exotic dancing is something we humans picked up via ornithology. All that prancing around to test each other’s commitment. Because a female albatross can lay only one egg in a season, and unless both parents have the right genes, and their interest in each other holds, the offspring dies.

515 hasn’t eaten for a week and a half now. She can never be left alone.

Ten yards from you, a mother’s been waiting three weeks for a father who’s never returned. Perhaps he honed in on a feeding frenzy, to scavenge for scraps, and got too close to an orca. Or maybe he landed in an oil slick, or he could be hanging around the neck of an ancient mariner. Those things his microprocessor can’t tell me.

Finally the starving mother wanders off to try to find something she can eat.

You copulated with her once, 308. I was in Maui at the time, but Rolf recorded the episode. She wandered onto your territory, and you mounted her. I suspect she was provoking you deliberately. Maybe she wanted her fledgling to have your genes.

Now you ignore the starving mother as she wanders past in search of food.

Her chick won’t live.

But it keeps on waiting. I focus my binoculars on it, and it’s radiating expectancy, and I resent being a scientist, struggling to remain an objective observer.

It may be your chick too, 308. I won’t know until I get the DNA sample I took from her to the lab.

A hawk sits motionless on a block of lava. Perched on a shrub, a warbler finch dismembers a grub.

Today’s e-mail from Tim began, I’ve been thinking a lot about monogamy as a resource optimizing strategy . . . Tim thinks that, for many populations, monogamy is best understood as an adaptation to environmental restraints. Consider the small-beaked echidna, he writes, which is promiscuous in warm northern Australia, monogamous in cold Tasmania. Among human societies, those that depend on fishing are the most likely to be monogamous. I picture Tim and Gretchen sipping mai tais in the Jacuzzi, thousands of miles from me across the Pacific, agreeing that human monogamy is more likely in harsh environments . . .The thought of that Jacuzzi almost makes me feel more jealous than the possibility that they’re having an affair.

A red-billed tropicbird swoops back to her nest in the cliff face. The nearest islands are turning golden in the sunset. At my feet, two red lava crabs are in a standoff, raising their pincers in a fight over territory strewn with the shards of a beer bottle. Despite its remoteness, this island had strategic significance once. What your species, Phoebastria irrorata or the waved albatross, uses as its breeding grounds, mine used as a World War Two U.S. radar station.

The G.I. who drank that beer was probably wondering how his girl back home was spending her time. Was he losing his mind like I am? Was she still there for him when he returned stateside?

Something just shat in my hair. An oyster catcher, I suspect. Time to return to my tent and get cleaned up.

###

It’s raining again. A humpback whale spouts offshore.

I found a castrated sea lion a little way down the beach last night. Poachers must have visited us. Sea lion penises are still popular black market aphrodisiacs in Tokyo.

515 hasn’t eaten for two weeks now. 297 is still in the Gulf of Guayaquil. She’s been there too long.

This might lie somewhat outside your sphere of interest, 308, but in the course of the 1990s, monogamy turned out to be much rarer than we previously imagined. Swans and geese were celebrated for eons as poetic tropes for fidelity, but new technologies did away with that. For close-bonding species like the indigo bunting and red-winged blackbird, where prurient ornithologists failed to spot any deviation from a strict pair relationship, DNA fingerprinting showed that one-third of the offspring were fathered by a male other than the ostensible paterfamilias, often by a nearby neighbor. Ravens, bluebirds, swallows, they all turned out not to be faithful.

Albatrosses too. Sure, you’re socially monogamous, mating with the same partner till you die. I’ve never known an albatross male to ditch a female. Even so, the data Rolf and I have collected shows that about a quarter of albatross fledglings are brooded by males other than their biological fathers.

I kind of wish we’d left the myth of complete albatross fidelity intact. Don’t you think an inspiring image like that must have saved a marriage or two across the millennia?

Is exposing your secret what I’ll be remembered for? Probably not, if only because birds cheating on each other is no longer news. An article called “Species Formerly Thought Monogamous Turns Out Really To Be” would be more publication-worthy.

And now we have afternoon talk show paternity tests where some bimbo opens an envelope to inform some dude, “You are not the baby’s father,” and he high-fives his friends like he’s won an award, while the mother screams in protest. I once did an experiment where I live-trapped male finches to see if no-longer-guarded females would choose other partners, and after these experiments were published, someone came up with a suspiciously similar reality TV show, which people doubtless watched out of scientific curiosity.

It would be nice to have a TV here, although I suppose I’d be able to pick up only Ecuadorian channels.

Oh, to be in Maui right now. The snorkeling’s good here on Isla Española, especially if you’re fond of sharks, as I’m not, and beyond the albatross colony there’s a spectacular blowhole, where you can see water spout twenty meters in the air. But we’re a bit short on modern conveniences.

Lucky from your point of view, 308, I suppose, that your habitat is part of a national park. Keeps you from going extinct, even though your entire species nests on the windward side of this one island. You and 297 must each have a pretty good idea where the other one ranks on the scale of desirable alternatives. Not all you males here can be of equal quality. Yet there are recorded cases of albatross partnerships that have endured over two decades, longer than any biology faculty marriages I can think of off the top of my head.

I have a craving for sweet and sour pork, but all I seem to have left is canned beans.

Listen, 308, I have to tell someone . . . I just missed a period.
Don’t look so skeptical. You’re only an albatross, and I have two Ph.Ds in biology. I’m telling you I just missed a period, for crying out loud.

####

What’s keeping Rolf? He’ll be livid about what he’s going to miss. The breeding cycle’s almost over. I already saw one fledgling wander away from his nest today, keyed to whatever circ-annual rhythms tell a bird it’s time to take off.

A flock of doves circles upward to avoid patrolling frigatebirds. A flycatcher snatches an insect off my finger.

I never dreamed I’d be so alone at such a time. All last night I lay awake in my tent, paralyzed with anxiety. There’s so little shelter out here, just the friction and lunge of unceasing hit-or-miss events, spiraling off into random emptiness. All this natural bounty suddenly desolate-seeming. I even found myself sexually fantasizing about Rolf at one point. I’ve been here too long.

No one to talk to, no one anywhere I can count on, it feels like. And my coffee supplies are getting low.

For you, 308, there’s some good news. From the satellite data I know that 297 navigated from the Gulf of Guayaquil to the coast of Peru and Ecuador to scavenge where the Humboldt current streams cold water into the tropics, and that she’s now returning from this upwelling region, hopefully with a bellyful of food.

She’s nearly here.

Tim sent me some virtual flowers today, since Interflora don’t deliver to Isla Española. They’re blooming on my laptop. There’s even a button I can click to water them.

I wrote Tim an e-mail giving him my news, then deleted it again.

Better to wait till I see him to tell him I’m pregnant.

Virtual flowers are so Tim. Computer simulations all the way. His e-mail says he finally got that grant he’d been angling for. He wants to run a simulation of the evolution of the twenty-four different albatross species, comparing the metabolic needs of fledglings, the average distance flown in search of food, and other variables, in an attempt to simulate the actual occurrence of infidelity shown by the data.

Maybe the chemistry he has with Gretchen will never get past the flirtation stage. It’s just not like him to pursue things beyond the abstract realm.

I’ve no idea how he’ll react when I tell him about the baby. Probably it’ll at least force things to a head, one way or the other. I hope he’ll turn out to be a provider like you, 308.

There’ll be no more fieldwork for me for a while. That won’t be good for my publication record. Soon the most exotic animals in my life will be built from Lego.

I might have to postpone thinking about tenure.

Well, you must be ravenous, 308. There are skeleton fledglings a few yards from you in either direction. And living ones waddling, trying to get their wings in position, rising off the ground and crashing down again.

How do I turn on this damn video camera again? That’s right. 297’s nearly . . .

And here she is, your other half.

I’m not like Tim. I live for fieldwork. And this is the payoff right here.

Bit of a rough landing there, 297, colliding with that spiny bush, but welcome home.

Still not much interaction between the two of you. She’s brought plenty of food for Junior though.

The hunger-frenzied 515 is pecking 297’s bill, and 297’s really puking out her intestines. Just the ticket. Nice work, 297. Albatross stomach oil has more calories than diesel.

Now you two are huddling together, while 515 digests her meal. Through your courtship dance, were you and 297 communicating to each other that you were capable of this other, yet more incredible, dance? 297, you’re lowering your head; 308, you’re preening her neck feathers.

515 walks away from you. She’s heavier than either of you now. Oh, how big she’s grown. Why don’t either of you watch?

I’m attaching the zoom lens. Quick quick.

Other chicks are walking too. One starts to run and glide. 515 is also locking her wings into place, stumbling across the boulders with those enormous webbed feet of hers and . . . the wind’s lofting her off the ground. She’s landing about twenty feet down the abandoned aircraft runway, then taking off again, and other chicks are belly-flopping into the water, getting devoured by the fifteen-foot hammerheads that course beyond the reef, but 515’s caught the right wind, and her wings are locked into place . . .

And now she’s being borne upward.

I think I’m going to cry. You two retched out the putrefied contents of your guts to nourish that pale speck, now rising above the breakers and the basalt, making out like a bandit, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

But all you’re doing is preening each other and picking off the ticks, as if you’ve no thoughts in your heads.

And now 515’s out of sight. Leaving me with the white guano on the black lava, and the affectless dissonance of all you crying birds.

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