Birds of Midway
by CAPTAIN T. McKEAN DOWNS
I REMEMBER well one particular summer day on Midway Island. There was no wind, and the sun was hot. I was watching a game of tennis. Flowering vines were growing on the backstops; pairs of fairy terns were everywhere. A flock of canary birds dropped down from the surrounding trees to feed; and some of the fearless finches, whose beaks are so large as to appear deformed, hopped around so close that more than once they actually perched on my foot. Overhead was an aggregation of sea birds: sooty terns were there, tropic birds and frigate birds, shearwaters, and even a few albatrosses, all soaring and circling up to the very limit of sight. Not far off, a pheasant was crowing. The scene was so peaceful and friendly it was hard to realize that we were in the midst of a bitter war, and that this had been an important battleground in that conflict.
Tiny Midway Island, where one can walk hardly a mile in any direction, is remarkable as the nesting place of nearly incredible numbers of sea birds. There is also a small but interesting group of land birds, and at certain times there are large numbers of migrant shore birds from Alaska and Siberia. It is a typical atoll. The climate is mild and equable. Rain is abundant, but the soil is so porous that there is no fresh water on the surface. All drinking water must be imported or be distilled from sea water.
The island is low, with rolling dunes covered with a dense growth of a shrub resembling rhododendron. The general effect is like parts of Cape Cod or Nantucket Island. There is a large grove of Australian ironwood trees that were planted years ago and now form a dense forest. Midway has for years been maintained and guarded as a bird sanctuary, and even under present warlike conditions it continues to be a refuge. This permanent closed season is enforced as much by public opinion as by orders and police. All hands go out of their way to avoid doing injury to the birds.
I remember one red-tailed tropic bird that hatched her egg and reared her chick at the edge of a road which carried a busy traffic of heavy trucks. As the chick grew, it showed a suicidal fondness for the thick, unshaded dust of the road, where its whiteness made it blend closely with the road. I have heard many truck drivers curse this foolish bird as they drove aside to avoid it, but it was never injured and in due time grew up and flew off to sea.
The red-tailed tropic bird is characteristic of the open ocean; except at its breeding season it never approaches land. Occasionally in the tropics one will see from a ship this white bird flying high on rapidly beating wings. It seldom sails, and never soars close to the water in great sweeping curves as do most pelagic wanderers. Also unlike them, the tropic bird pays little attention to a ship, but goes on about its own affairs. If its course should bring it near enough, the two long central tail quills may be seen, colored a bright vermilion, the only part of the plumage not white. It is these quills that inspired the old whalers to call it “bosun bird,” for, they said, “it carries its marlinespike in its tail.”
Although obviously a consummate and tireless flyer, the bosun bird is nearly helpless on land. Its tiny four-toed feet will hardly support its weight, and it creeps on all fours, using wings as well as feet to shuffle on and off its nest. It can rise from the level, however, by striking the air with its wings; unlike its relative the frigate bird, it does not need a jumping-off place.
The bosun bird does not make a nest, — not even a hollow scooped into the ground, — but lays its egg apparently at random. The chick at first is covered with white down. When it is about half grown, the first feathers begin to show, white with narrow crossbars of black. It grows slowly. One that I watched daily was believed to be about a week old when I first saw it, and when I left Midway two months later, it was not yet full-grown or able to fly.
The adult was a most devoted parent; but as there is no easy distinction between the sexes, I do not know if both parents shared in brooding or not. When small, the chick was closely brooded; as it grew larger, the parent crouched close by, with one wing thrown protectingly over it. The brooding was evidently to protect the chick from the almost vertical rays of the sun. When the youngster was well feathered, the parents no longer brooded, but spent their days at sea, returning only with food. Apparently the chick was fed mostly in the early morning, or at night. The one time I saw it fed was shortly after dawn, and the food was a squid that was still moving. The morsel seemed larger than the bird, and was the only food I saw it receive that day.
Most of the nesting bosun birds lacked their ornaments, or showed at most new quills sprouting. The conspicuous tail quills of the birds are favorite souvenirs of the Midway population. It is a simple matter to pluck out the quills from the brooding bird, for she is a close sitter. She objects to the ravishment in a voice that sounds like a saw being filed, but the loss does no harm, and new quills sprout promptly.
THE most conspicuous of the Midway birds are the albatrosses, locally called “goonies.” Strictly speaking, in the old whalers’ vocabulary, goonie was applied only to the great wandering albatross of the southern oceans. The word may come from the Scottish gonyel, meaning “a stupid, clumsy fellow.” It is so appropriate, as applied to the youngsters, that its use has been spread on Midway to include the whole race of albatrosses.
Of the three kinds of North Pacific albatrosses, two, the Laysan and the black-footed, resort to this island to breed. The black-footed is the bird more commonly seen at sea. It is a long-winged, soaring flyer given to following ships. The Laysan species has been met with less frequently of late, since some feather hunters nearly exterminated them from Laysan Island in the Hawaiian group a number of years ago.
Both kinds are very similar in their habits, and differ mainly in color. The black-footed albat ross is of a uniform dark chocolate-brown, nearly black; the Laysan species shows the same color on the back of the spread wings but is otherwise a snowy white. They are birds of the open ocean, rarely seen within sight of land, and they spend most of their time on the wing, soaring in wide circles never far above the water.
They are large birds, weighing at a guess twelve to fifteen pounds. Their wings are pointed and very narrow, and so long as to be unwieldy. They can be flapped only slowly, and not through a great arc. This characteristic, combined with the bird’s heavy weight, makes launching into flight a laborious matter, involving a long run over the water like an airplane before flight is possible. In calm weather, flight is heavy and difficult; most of the albatrosses then sit idly on the water, waiting for a breeze. Few albatrosses inhabit a region where calms are common, and the stronger the wind the more easily they fly.
In the air, the bird holds itself too stiffly to be graceful, but its flight, once established, is a poem of easy grace. Nothing but a skillful skater can compete with them. They fly by soaring on rigid wings. Taking advantage of the air currents deflected upwards from the weather sides of the waves, they rise sometimes thirty feet or so from the surface, then swoop down into the trough, using their momentum to propel them considerable distances before rising again. They move in great sweeping curves, banked to just the proper angle to prevent skidding, and travel through the air many times farther than the direct path over the water. The tip of the lower wing often just clears the surface; sometimes it looks as though it were actually dipped in and acting as a fulcrum. But I have never convinced myself that they really touch the water.
Albatrosses are strictly surface feeders, and are unable to dive. They are attracted to ships partly by the waste food thrown out from the galley, or by the living creatures brought to the surface by the disturbed water of the wake, and partly, it seems, by the pleasure of soaring in the steady flow of air deflected upward over the ship. Albatrosses keep to the windward side, where they often come so close that they appear almost to be within reach of the hand. On the lee side of the ship they cannot come near, for all soaring flight depends on a rising air current.
Occasionally at their breeding islands, if conditions are suitable, the albatrosses soar to high levels. If the air is calm and the sun warm, a rising current of warm air will ascend over the land until it is cooled and can rise no more. In this rising air the albatrosses circle. On account of their excellent aerodynamic design, they can soar in a very weak updraft, and seem to take delight in riding it to the top. I have seen them in calm weather at Midway appearing as mere specks in the sky at an altitude that I guessed at 2500 feet.
The albatrosses come to Midway to breed in December. The black-footed ones are the first to appear. One can always tell which birds are newly arrived from the open sea, for they have forgotten how to land. Having been accustomed for months to alight only on water, they make their approach, slow down, lower their feet ahead like brakes, and touch, apparently expecting to skim along the surface until they lose speed and stop. Instead, they tumble head over heels. When they have collected themselves and scrambled to their feet, they walk off hanging their heads, looking around furtively as if hoping that no one has seen their disgrace.
Graceful as is the flight of the albatross, the bird’s behavior on the ground is correspondingly awkward. Mr. Beebe says the waved albatross of the Galapagos Islands walks as if it had flat feet and rheumatism, and the description applies to the other kinds as well. They seem to creak in every joint and waddle painfully. Some species, indeed, have quite lost the ability to walk, and can nest only on cliffs, where taking flight is a simple matter of jumping off into space. But the ones I know, which nest where there are no jumping-off places, must be able to walk and run in order to get into the air.
On first reaching land, the birds give themselves over to an orgy of courtship and lovemaking, at first apparently promiscuous, but they soon form pairs. There seems to be little real fighting, but they frequently perform a kind of stylized duel or fencing match which does not seem to be either a courtship display or yet a battle. During the first week or two on shore, courtship is such an engrossing affair that the birds apparently forget to eat.
Soon the single egg is laid on the sand, with no particular nest except a somewhat smoothed place, and the long incubation period of nearly two months is begun. Probably both birds take turns at sitting, but as the sexes are exactly alike it is hard to be sure. A surprising thing is to see the parent bird talk to its egg. She partly rises up from time to time, looks down to see that the egg is all right, fondles it with her bill, and for several minutes utters a low crooning note, entirely different from the harsh sound that albatrosses occasionally make.
Nests are chosen and eggs laid at random. The birds are utterly fearless — perhaps indifferent is a better term. If the nesting pair think a human pathway or road a suitable place for egg-laying, there the eggs will be laid and traffic will have to go around. The only definite requirement is that the site chosen shall be near an open space, free of obstacles and obstructions that would interfere with a take-off. For an albatross, like an airplane, cannot spring into the air. It requires an open runway for building up speed, and it cannot rise above obstructions until flight is well started. Also like an airplane, an albatross can light on a surface that is too small for the necessary take-off run. Every day during the season, the roofs of buildings must be cleared of goonies that have landed on them and then find themselves imprisoned in a place too small to fly away from.
When the young hatch, they are weak and do not wander far. They are carefully brooded and tended, and are abundantly fed. They grow fairly rapidly, and soon get stronger and wander all over the place. In a few months the babies have reached full size and are so fat as to be considerably heavier than their parents. Under their heavy coats of grayish down, their permanent feathers start to grow.
About this time the parents, till now most devoted in their care, desert their offspring utterly and forever, and fly off to sea. The woolly youngsters spread out and take over the island — woods, “rhododendron” thickets, roads, lawns, every place but the beaches. One cannot look in any direction without seeing them, and the appropriateness of the name “goonie” becomes evident. Anyone who has seen pictures or movies of the Battle of Midway remembers that a number of them appear in every view. Mostly they stand solemnly in groups, or squat, or even sprawl. Many choose a most uncomfortable-seeming pose, seated on the end of their tails and heels, with their broad flat webs, fully spread, sticking straight up in front.
For two months the young goonies take no food. If one tries to feed them, they refuse the food. They slowly lose weight and become active. They start to indulge in frequent wing exercises, spreading and flapping their long wings. If the breeze is strong they may even be lifted into the air, but this is too much for their composure. With an appearance of fright they hurriedly close their wings, or perhaps only one of them, and crash to the ground. Gradually they lose their down, gain strength and confidence, and by about the first week in August start to leave their birthplace. Many wait before leaving until they are strong on the wing and fly directly off, but some are impatient and go earlier. I have seen several making their departure when a flight of a quarter-mile distance or a minute in length was still an effort.
One beginner, taking off from the top of a dune, headed boldly out into the lagoon, but after two or three hundred yards reached the limit of his strength. With no attempt to check speed or prepare for a landing, he just relaxed and plumped into the water with a splash. He capsized, his enormous wings still widespread and unmanageable, and for a few moments it looked as if he had reached the end of his career. He finally righted himself, drank heartily of sea water (the first fluid he had ever touched), and after a rest made another try. This landing was more successful, and in a series of short hops he finally disappeared from sight.
ONE of the most abundant of the nesting birds is the sooty tern. The terns nest in dense colonies of a couple of acres, where the eggs are as thickly set as possible. As long as a sitting bird is just beyond reach of her neighbor’s bill, she has all the room she needs for rearing her family.
The sooty tern is about the size and shape of the common tern, colored dark chocolate-brown above and pure white below. When the bird is flying over the water of the lagoon, the white breast reflects the color of the sea, and also appears blue. Away from the nesting ground these birds are fearless and indifferent, drinking or fishing even among a group of swimming people; and they are most valiant in defense of egg or chick. Shrieking with the raucous voice that is characteristic of all terns, they swoop and dart at one’s face. I never knew anyone to be actually struck by these feathered dive bombers, but I also never knew anyone who could refrain from ducking.
The sooty tern presents some interesting problems. Dr. R. C. Murphy says that it is not known where they go between nesting seasons in the Caribbean Islands. From Midway they must go to sea, for there is no other place to go. Yet they never voluntarily alight on the ocean, or even allow themselves to get wet. When the experiment was tried of putting them into the water, their feathers promptly became saturated, they could not take off, and they drowned. How, then, do they live during their months at sea? Have they solved the problem of perpetual motion and done away with the need for sleep?
Whatever one may think of the whim of nature that forbids a fish-eating bird to get soaked, this apparent handicap does not hinder them from being good providers for their young. They carry home such an abundance of small minnows that the chicks cannot eat them all, and the nesting ground is constantly littered with little dead fish the size of sardines.
Another sea bird that cannot get saturated on pain of death is the fairy tern, which on Midway is called the Japanese lovebird. The “lovebird” part of the name I can understand, for they are never seen singly, but always in pairs or trios; but I have never heard an explanation of the epithet “Japanese.” That qualifying adjective is not applied to these birds at any other island except Midway, and they are not found in Japan.
The fairy tern is somewhat smaller than a street pigeon, snowy white except for a stout black bill and two shiny black eyes. The plumage is thin, soft, and fluffy, and is no protection against water. The feet are small, with sharp claws, and the web has dwindled so that it is hardly larger proportionately than the web of a chicken’s foot. The birds are fearless, friendly, and very active, and perch only on trees. One youngster, though it was old enough to fly, allowed me to pick it up. It rested comfortably on my finger and allowed itself to be petted and carried around for an hour with no sign of dismay.
The fairy terns have practically become perching birds that get their nourishment from the sea, rather than sea birds; but they still have the same harsh, unpleasant voices common to all terns. It always seemed to me unfitting that such dainty, pretty fowl should so offend the ear.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the fairy tern is its nesting habit. A horizontal branch an inch in diameter is a suitable place for it to deposit the egg, and no nesting material is provided. I remember one that had chosen such a branch, barely out of reach overhead. The limb was smaller in diameter than the egg, which it did not hide from below.
I cannot understand how the laying tern can deposit her egg on such a branch and make it stay there. The egg is large for the size of the bird, — about twice the size of a pigeon’s egg, — of the ordinary oval shape without any flat places, and not sticky. Yet it stays in place. I have never seen one that had fallen off and broken. I once picked up an egg to look at it, but was not able to balance it again, and it fell to the ground.
I have seen the parents relieve each other during the three weeks’ incubation, but the egg never rolls off during the transfer. Anyone who has ever seen the struggles of a hatching bird to release itself from the imprisoning shell must be astonished at how the little fairy tern can escape from its confinement without at the same time kicking itself off into space.
As ONE walks through the Midway woods, one often sees on the ground what looks like a rather sluggish mouse, but it is not a mouse. Closer inspection shows a small bird that is practically wingless. If it suddenly darts for an insect or stretches itself, it spreads what ought to be its wings, but they are only tiny tabs, though fully feathered. This is the Laysan rail, originally an inhabitant of Laysan Island and of no other place. Before this harmless little creature was exterminated from Laysan, a few pairs had been liberated on Midway, and here they have thrived. They are more interesting than attractive, rather sluggish and secretive, but yet too active and alert to be caught by hand. Their principal food is the maggots and the fat flies that feed on the excess of food brought home by the sea birds.
Besides these little rails, the only land birds on Midway are the large-beaked finches, ring-necked pheasants, and the canaries. With the possible exception of the finches, all the land birds have been introduced. The canaries were freed on the island a number of years ago, and have multiplied until there are large flocks. They have the habits of sparrows, and seem to thrive. They form a very colorful addition to the garden and woods, and the song of the feral male seems much freer and happier than the song we are accustomed to hear from caged birds.
Strangely enough the canaries, though they are without enemies, are alert and cautious, and never come very close to people. Other birds are tame and trusting. The finches perch freely on one’s knee or shoulder. Fearlessness and the tendency to caution seem to be inborn traits and not the result of individual experience. Beebe comments on this in the birds and mammals of the Galapagos Islands, where the native birds are utterly without fear, though the dogs, donkeys, cattle, and goats that have run wild are as cautious as though their recent ancestors had never been tamed.
When night falls and the noisy terns and other day birds have quieted, the silence of Midway is broken by a chorus of shrieks and moans unlike anything one has ever heard before. The midnight song of cats on the back fence is musical by comparison. This wailing is the greeting and love song of the “moaning birds,” which is the name locally given to the shearwaters. Two kinds nest here — the wedge-tailed in summer, the Bonin shearwater in winter. At sea they look and act like very small albatrosses, soaring on rigid wings just above the surface. But they are less exclusively aerial, and daily spend several hours toward noon resting on the water in great flocks. One bird of each pair spends the day on the nest, which is made at the end of a tunnel in the ground. In places these nest holes are so thickly crowded as to make walking difficult.
At dusk the birds return from the ocean and are met by their mates, who come up from underground with wails of welcome and elaborate gestures of affection. Sometimes in bright moonlight they can be seen flitting overhead, or running about in couples on the ground. Shortly before sunrise the commotion ends. One of each pair returns to the nest while the other goes off to sea for the day.
Although I heard these birds constantly, I saw them clearly but once. On the day of my departure from the island, I got up before dawn, because my airplane left early. As I rode down the airport runway in a jeep, the morning twilight was lightening. The birds were all about, moaning as if their hearts would break, standing close together in pairs with heads touching. It looked as if they were kissing each other good-bye and bewailing the coming day’s separation. Even as I sat in the plane, waiting for the engines to warm up, the shearwaters were already streaming out to sea.