Albatrosses are the largest members of the rather diverse order of sea birds known as petrels. Of the 13 species of albatross, nine occur in New Zealand seas–seven mollymawks and the two great albatrosses, the wanderer and the royal. These latter are among the largest of all flying birds and, like all but four species of the family to which they belong, are confined to the S. Hemisphere mainly between 30° and 60. The breeding grounds are wild and remote islands of the sub-Antarctic, but the royal albatross, Diomedea epomophora, is remarkable in that a few pairs of the Chatham Islands subspecies regularly breed at Taiaroa Head, the eastern headland at the entrance to Otago Harbour. This they have done since 1919 though the first chick was not successfully raised until 1938. As a result of increasingly careful protection in recent years, breeding success has improved and between the laying of the first fully successful egg in 1937 and the year 1959, some 36 young were reared. The breeding colony now numbers 10–12 pairs.
Breeding is a protracted affair with petrels, especially so with the great albatrosses which take some 10 months to complete the process and so are able to reach breeding condition only in alternate years. Petrels lay but one egg, incubation is shared, and the Taiaroa royals, which lay in November, will not hatch their young until 11½ weeks later. For about the next eight months, the growing chick is looked after and fed by its parents though often left to itself for long spells while they are at sea gathering food, which is fish and squid. The chick is fed by regurgitation and what almost amounts to forced feeding. The youngster's snowy-white down is eventually replaced by feathers and in September, after a period of much ground practice, it launches itself from a cliff and begins its long life at sea. The breeding stage is not reached until the bird is about eight years of age.
by Gordon Roy Williams, B.SC.(HONS.)(SYDNEY), Lecturer in Agricultural Zoology, Lincoln Agricultural College.