Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

In Animal Behavior, Birds, Book Reviews, Conservation, Endangered Species, Nonfiction, Oceans by John Yunker


The Laysan albatross is known as Mōlī in Hawaiian. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives when describing the albatross. The bird has a wingspan longer than most humans are tall. Albatross far outlive most other birds — with one active albatross now 64 years old. They spend most of their lives  at sea, gliding just a few inches above the waves. Only 5% of their lives are spent on land — and this is where they are particularly vulnerable, when they are breeding and caring for their chicks.

Author Hob Osterlund is founder of the Kaua’i Albatross Network an organization that works to protect these birds. And through her writing you experience firsthand the challenges she and the birds face in establishing their relatively new colony. Generation by generation, Osterlund shares a wealth of stories, some happy and some not so.

Like the story of twin chicks, born to a couple that cannot possibly provide for both. Osterlund writes:

If you are like a lot of people, you might interrupt me now. You might ask if there wasn’t a way to hand-feed the chicks. I would have to refer you to Aaron; feeding a seabird is more complex than feeding a songbird. You have to be trained and officially authorized to slurry a squid and force-feed a ‘tross.

You might also ask whether The Twins should be euthanized to prevent their inevitable suffering. You might blame our species, and your own good self, for the many ways we’ve harmed the birds and their oceans. You might search for data to diminish your sorrow, to find a precedent. Alas, you will find little consolation in facts. None, actually. An albatross pair simply cannot catch and carry enough food to sustain two offspring.

We must try to be as brave as the babes, you and I.

But this is much more than a book about the albatross.

Interspersed are personal stories of a woman who lost her mother way too early. A woman who migrated to Hawaii after having been summoned in a dream by her ancestor.

Osterlund is a wonderful writer, deftly documenting a painful childhood while retaining her sense of humor throughout. She believes strongly in the power of humor, and this attitude carries through her writing.

As a bird lover, I appreciate how birds and humans are treated equally in this book. The birds have names, strong personalities, complex lives. They are, in other words, a lot like us. And, in other ways, they are our betters. Their navigational skills put most GPS devices to shame. And their willingness to raise chicks not of their own making is inspiring.

This is a lovely book about devoting your life to another species and coming to terms with your own.

Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors

Oregon State University Press