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Short-tailed albatross

Photo of Short-tailed Albatross (Bill Coster)

Scientific name: Phoebastria albatrus 

Status: Endangered

Listing Activity: The short-tailed albatross was listed as endangered throughout its range in July 2000. Critical habitat is not prudent for this species. A recovery plan, drafted in 2005, is not finalized.

Potential Range Map

  • Historical Status and Current Trend

    The short-tailed albatross once ranged throughout most of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, with known nesting colonies on the following islands: Torishima in the Seven Islands of Izu Group in Japan; Mukojima, Nishinoshima, Yomeshima, and Kitanoshima in the Bonin Islands of Japan; Kita-daitojima, Minami-daitojima, and Okino-daitojima of the Daito group of Japan; Senkaku Retto of southern Ryukyu Islands of Japan, including Minami-kojima, Kobisho, and Uotsurijima; Iwo Jima in the western Volcanic Islands (Kazan-Retto) of Japan; Agincourt Island, Taiwan; and Pescadore Islands, of Taiwan, including Byosho Island.

    Currently , the short-tailed albatross population is estimated to be 1,200 birds. Of these, the total number of breeding age birds is thought to be approximately 600 birds. At-sea sightings since the 1940s indicate that the short-tailed albatross, while very few in number today, is distributed widely throughout its historical foraging range of the temperate and subarctic North Pacific Ocean and is often found close to the U.S. coast.


    Most of the world's breeding population nests on Torishima Island in the Tsubamezaki colony. Current nesting habitat on Torishima is steep sites on soils containing loose volcanic ash. The island is dominated by a grass, Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus. The grass is likely to stabilize the soil, provide protection from weather, and minimize mutual interference between nesting pairs while allowing for safe, open takeoffs and landings. The nest is a grass or moss-lined concave scoop about two feet in diameter. The only terrestrial area within U.S. jurisdiction that is currently used by the short-tailed albatross for attempted nesting is the Midway Atoll.

    Short-tailed albatross forage at sea but specific geographic and seasonal distribution patterns within the marine range are not well understood. The short-tailed albatross is a frequent visitor to the productive waters in shelf break areas of the Northern Gulf of Alaska, Aleutians Islands, and Bering Sea. The marine range of the short-tailed albatross within U.S. territorial waters includes Alaska's vast coastal shelf break areas and the marine waters of Hawaii for foraging, but we do not know how much or to what extent it utilizes open ocean areas of the Gulf of Alaska, North Pacific Ocean, and Bering Sea.

    Life History

    The short-tailed albatross is a large pelagic bird with long narrow wings adapted for soaring just above the water surface. The bill, which is disproportionately large compared to the bills of other northern hemisphere albatrosses, is pink and hooked with a bluish tip, with external tubular nostrils, and a thin but conspicuous black line extending around the base. Adult short-tailed albatrosses are the only North Pacific albatross with an entirely white back. The white head develops a yellow-gold crown and nape over several years. Fledged juveniles are dark brown-black, but soon develop the pale bills and legs that distinguish them from black-footed and Laysan albatrosses.

    Short-tailed albatrosses are long-lived and slow to mature. The average age at first breeding is six years. As many as 25 percent of breeding age adults may not return to the colony in a given year. Survival rates for all post-fledging ages combined are high (96 percent).

    Birds arrive at the breeding colony in October and begin nest-building. Egg-laying begins in late October and continues through late November. The female lays a single egg; incubation involves both parents and lasts for 64 to 65 days. Eggs hatch in late December and January, and by late May or early June, the chicks are almost full-grown and the adults begin abandoning their nests. Short-tailed albatrosses are monogamous and highly philopatric (returning to the same breeding site year after year) to nesting areas. However, young birds may occasionally disperse from their natal colonies to breed, as evidenced by the appearance of adult birds on Midway Atoll that were banded as chicks on Torishima.


    The diet of short-tailed albatrosses includes squid, fish, eggs of flying fish, shrimp, and other crustaceans.

    Reason for Decline

    At the beginning of the 20th century, the species declined in population numbers to near extinction, primarily as a result of hunting at the breeding colonies in Japan. Albatross were killed for their feathers and various other body parts. The down feathers were used for quilts and pillows, and wing and tail feathers were used for writing quills; their bodies were processed into fertilizer and rendered into fat, and their eggs were collected for food. Pre-exploitation worldwide population estimates of short-tailed albatrosses are not known; the total number of birds harvested may provide the best estimate, since the harvest drove the species nearly to extinction. Between approximately 1885 and 1903, an estimated five million short-tailed albatrosses were harvested from the breeding colony on Torishima, and harvest continued until the early 1930s. By 1949, there were no short-tailed albatrosses breeding at any of the historically known breeding sites, including Torishima, and the species was thought to be extinct. The species persisted, however, and in 1950, the chief of the weather station at Torishima, Mr. M. Yamamoto, reported nesting of the short-tailed albatross. Presumably, these birds had been wandering the North Pacific during the final several years of indiscriminate killing.

    The worldwide population of short-tailed albatrosses continues to be in danger of extinction throughout its range due to natural environmental threats, small population size, and the small number of breeding colonies. Longline fishing, plastics pollution, oil contamination, and airplane strikes are not viewed as threats to the species' survival, but are considered threats to the species' conservation and recovery.

    Conservation Measures

    Two primary activities have been undertaken to enhance breeding success on Torishima: (1) erosion control efforts at the Tsubamesaki colony have improved nesting success; (2) an attempt to establish a second breeding colony on Torishima involved an experimental program for luring breeding birds to the opposite side of the island from the Tsubamesaki colony. Preliminary results of the experiment are promising; the first chick was produced in 1997. The expectation is that, absent a volcanic eruption or some other catastrophic event, the population on Torishima will continue to grow but it will be many years before the breeding sites are limited.

    References and Links

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2000. Final Rule To List the Short-Tailed Albatross as Endangered in the United States. FR (65): 46643-46654.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2005. Short-Tailed Albatross Draft Recovery Plan (For Public Review).

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2009. 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation, Short-tailed Albatross.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2014. 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation, Short-tailed Albatross.

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