Albatross is the common name for large web-footed marine birds belonging to the family Diomedeidae, order Procellariiformes. Some of the 13 or 14 species also are known as mollymawks or gooney birds. Albatrosses are concentrated in southern oceans but are also seen in warmer northern waters and may migrate farther north in the summer.
Their narrow, graceful wings-wingspan may exceed 3.7 m (12 ft), more than any other living bird-make them superb gliders. Albatrosses often travel great distances. Along with the related Petrels and Shearwaters, albatrosses are the most marine of birds. They sleep on the ocean’s surface, drink seawater, and subsist on squid and other small marine life. Some are scavengers, trailing ships for their refuse.
Albatrosses range in length from 50 to 125 cm (20 to 50 in). Plumage varies from white through dark gray or gray-brown, with combinations of all three being common. The large hooked bill, covered with horny plates, has characteristically prominent tubular nostrils. The three front toes are webbed, and the rear toe may be absent or vestigial. Albatrosses live on land only during the breeding season, usually nesting in colonies on the shores of remote oceanic islands. Courtship displays are highly elaborate. Incubation of a single large white egg lasts two to three months.
Because of the albatross theme in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the bird’s name has become a metaphor for a troublesome burden.