Native Intelligence: Kaua`i

Mōlī Movies

Story by Hob Osterlund.

Niau and Kala‘i do all the things other fuzzy mōlī (Laysan albatross) chicks do: They nap, they preen, they rearrange their nests. They wait for that glorious moment when a parent brings supper home (who among us can refuse a shiny bolus of regurgitated squid?). But there’s one way Niau and Kala‘i are unique: They’re stars of a reality show.

Thanks to a collaboration between the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Kaua‘i Albatross Network, a live-streaming “TrossCam” has been following the chicks on Kaua‘i since each was an egg the size of a soda can. Hōkū Cody, one of the TrossCam operators, knows albatrosses better than almost anyone, having studied on the “mōlī mothership” at Kure and Pihemanu (Midway) Atolls. “The birds were vital to voyaging,” Hōkū says, referring to the Polynesian navigators who looked to sea-going birds like albatrosses to guide them to land. “They can be our best friends at sea. Culturally and spiritually, we can learn to mimic them.”

While for now albatrosses nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it’s vital to protect nesting sites in the main Hawaiian Islands. Pihemanu is likely to be submerged in the upcoming decades. Kure has a little more elevation, but the bluffs of northeastern Kaua‘i—the only spot in the main islands where mōlī currently breed—are higher and offer long-term sanctuary to the
birds as well as a chance for humans to study them closely.

Seeing an albatross fly for the first time is a thrill for viewers, who log in for hours near the big day so they won’t miss the moment. The chicks make their awkward first attempts at flight in June, when they sport beautiful adult plumage with a few remnant wisps of down on their heads. When they finally do soar from the bluff, they won’t return to land for three to four years.

Last year’s celebrity chick, named Kaloakulua, was watched from the day she hatched until the day she fledged. Over those five months, millions of viewers in nearly two hundred countries watched her grow from a puffball to a fledgling. “The cams open a window into the world of birds that many people never knew existed,” says Charles Eldermire, Bird Cams project leader at Cornell, “and once they look in, they can‘t look away.”

Story by Hob Osterlund. Photos by