by Kim Steutermann Rogers
I know right away I’m going to feed the bird we’re not supposed to feed.
Shawn and I are field biologists stationed on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, tracking the comings and goings of albatross parents, recording the length of time each parent spends feeding their chick, noting how long they spend away from the nest between feedings in search of squid and flying fish and fish eggs that are sometimes attached to bits of floating plastic.
Plastic. It’s everywhere, even the wilderness of the sea. Once, I saw a cigarette lighter slip out of a parent’s mouth and into its chick’s open maw. Plastic bottle caps are common. It’s like these big beautiful birds, with wingspans extending six and a half feet and faces painted like Cleopatra, are cleaning up our mess for us. But there aren’t enough albatross in the world, and they often die in the process. Like Stormy’s mom. These birds deserve more from us. We’re field biologists, I remind myself. Shawn and I are here to study how to save the species. But we’re not wildlife rehab specialists. We’re not here to save each individual bird. Like Stormy.
Stormy is one of our study birds, close to fledging, close to taking his first flight out to sea. After a week of foraging a few thousand miles north, Stormy’s mom returned this afternoon, but before she could feed Stormy a seafood slurry meal, she sat beside his nest and died. A soft honk escaped her four-inch-long serrated bill. She released her last breath while Stormy tapped her bill, making eee-eee-epp-ing calls, begging for food. A scene that would break anyone, mother or not.
Shawn returns to camp late in the afternoon, and I give her the news.
Shawn’s a mighty force, not much older than my daughter, Maya. She wears a swimsuit covered with a sleeveless white nylon shirt, the word Scientist in blue letters across the back. Last time I was in the field, before my daughter was born, I dressed the same. Now, at forty-eight, I don’t leave camp without the full protection of a long-sleeved shirt, capri-length leggings, a hat, and sunglasses. Shawn’s spent the day on the other side of the island dealing with a fishing net that had washed ashore. She’s always first to haul in these heavy nets, and I cannot decide if she’s just energetic or thinks I’m too old. Shawn’s always full of questions, the philosophical kind, so different than Maya, whose questions revolve around asking permission. Shawn and I have been here together for more than four months.
I can tell by the shift in Shawn’s shoulders the impact of my words.
“It’s natural for birds to die,” I say. “Help me open her up.” Part of our research is to examine the stomach contents of dead birds, and in Stormy’s mom, we find a toothbrush—its handle sheared off and looking like a shiv—puncturing her stomach lining. The usually chatty Shawn quietly measures and weighs each item, logging the data in a spreadsheet we email to Honolulu by way of satellite internet.
As we do every night, we pause as the sun drops below the horizon, watch for the green flash. We’ve seen many. Shooting stars and meteors, too. Satellites and the space station. I’ve missed this.
It’s Shawn’s turn to cook. Tonight, it’s canned spaghetti. There’s nothing fresh in the propane freezer as food supplies have been replaced with bird parts, vials of blood and tissue samples.
I gather our plates to rinse, and Shawn asks, “Did you always want children?”
It’s been nearly two decades since I traded fieldwork for a desk job after splitting with Maya’s dad. I think about my daughter in her first year of college in Vermont.
“I don’t know,” I say, and that’s the truth of it. Back then, I was living my dream, too exuberant to think beyond the coral reef across the lagoon, much less about children. Until a plus sign appeared on a stick and decided the next twenty years of life for me.
I wake in the middle of the night, rain drumming my tent. Albatross love big weather,
logging tens of thousands of air miles each year. Stormy got his nickname when a squall blew through one day, and he hopped to his webbed feet, flap-flap-flapping his wing stubs. If he fledges, he won’t touch land again for several years, only returning when hormones urge him to find a mate. Then, he and his mate will take turns incubating their own egg for sixty-five days and feeding their chick for another five months before it fledges. They will repeat this process annually for the seventy or so years they live. Albatross are grand masters of flight. They’re also devoted parents.
Instead of reaching for melatonin, I unzip my tent. The rain feels good on my skin. Stormy’s nestled in his nest, head tucked under a wing, leaving a single eye visible—open and watching me. “I see you, too,” I whisper. The rain has released an unmistakable mix of ocean and warm air and big wind, which I associate with albatross—my very favorite smell in the world.
My laptop pings and brings me back to my tent. It’s Maya. She’s struggling with statistics and wants to know if it’s okay to drop the class. I sit with her question for a minute, then email, Do what’s best for you. Trust yourself. Love, Mom.
I open my journal and write, Plastic is a man-made problem. This is the benchmark we use for when to intervene with nature. It’s no different than if we killed her with our own hands.
I’m up early the next morning, kneeling on the ground, Stormy between my knees, dropping one fish after another into his open mouth. He takes six. I dip my head into his mass of white plumage. “God, I love this smell,” I say when Shawn emerges from her tent. What I don’t say is I’m glad my daughter graduated high school and left for college, so I could return to fieldwork. Because no mother says those words out loud.
Kim Steutermann Rogers lives with her husband and 16-year-old dog Lulu in Hawaii. Her essay “Following the Albatross Home” was recognized as notable in Best American Travel Writing. Her journalism has been published in National Geographic, Audubon, and Smithsonian, and her prose in Gone Lawn, The Citron Review, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She was awarded residencies at Storyknife Writers Retreat in Alaska in 2016 and 2021 and Dorland Mountain Arts in 2022. Find her @kimsrogers.