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Monday, July 6, 2009

The Surgeon General of Midway - Part 3 - Getting acquainted with the gooney birds...

Continued from Part 2

The second day on Midway began uneventfully. I probably got up about 0600 and showered and shaved and then headed for the chow hall about 0730.

Arriving at the clinic at 0900 I slogged through my first day of sick call. I always hated the first day at a new place cause I always felt like I was wearing lead shoes until I got used to the particular paperwork and got accustomed to the particular personalities. Nevertheless I finished before about 1100.

I told the crew I would probably go meandering around mostly on the east side of Sand Island if they needed me, and I headed out on foot with my camera. The west side of the island consisted mostly of air strip and those vile fenced areas so there was no need to mess around much over there. Sure enough, I did see some rather ugly marines with M-16's standing near the fences.

During my walk I was able to become acquainted with the island's most familiar inhabitant, the Laysan Albatross, also known as the "gooney bird". The gooney bird is an amazing creature. They are quite large with a wingspan of 3 to 4 feet. They spend the majority of their time out at sea but return to Midway and a few other islands in the wintertime to mate and lay their eggs. I was there during the mating and egg-laying phase. If I had been able to stay longer I could have witnessed the hatch, which the crew said was really a funny sight to behold.

The gooney bird is one of the few warm-blooded creatures that can actually drink salt water. They have some kind of glands that will excrete the excess salt from their bodies and I was told you could see the salt crystals accumulate on the top of their beaks, but I was never able to get close enough to one to observe this for myself.

My Front Yard

Gooney birds will not mate until they are 6 or 7 years old and when they do mate, they will mate for life with their partner. Younger gooneys will come back to the island to "participate" in the mating ritual but will not actually do the nasty until they are of age.

Mating Dance

The female birds that are of age and even those that have already chosen a mate will allow the other males to "dance" for them. I witnessed several males in a circle dancing for a single female, but in the end, she will always be faithful to her mate. The dance is amusing. The birds will face each other, bob their heads up and down several times and then throw their heads back, beaks pointing skyward and emit a sound akin to a party horn. This can go on for hours.

"Pick me! Pick me!"

The momma bird will scratch out a little bowl in the grass and lay a single egg. They normally don't pay much attention to the humans but they are protective of their egg and will lunge at you and snap at you with their beaks if you get too close. We were told at the beginning to leave the birds alone. They are protected and you can be fined for molesting them.

Proud Momma

It was also rumored that the birds came back to the exact same place every year to lay an egg and it was also rumored that if a building was built on top of a nesting place that the bird would lay the egg right next to the building as close as possible to the original site. Now I did see many birds right up against buildings, but some of those buildings had to be way older than any of those birds, so I question the validity of those previous claims.

There was a story told of a particular bird named "the bishop" who would walk down the center aisle of the chapel. It was rumored that the chapel was built on "the bishop's" nesting site.

Gooney birds are not land creatures and are very clumsy when on the ground. They cannot take off like other birds, but rather turn themselves into the wind, get a running start, spread their enormous wings, and hopefully lift off. Once they start running, they are committed. I witnessed one veer slightly on takeoff and have a rather unpleasant head on collision with a pine tree. Undaunted by the mishap, the bird dusted itself off, waddled back to the beginning of the "runway" and tried again, successfully, a second time.

Landing is equally problematic. They land into the wind, flare as they near the ground, drop their feet at the last minute and hopefully run to a stop. Several times however I watched a few of them turn somersaults as they touched down. None of the birds ever seemed to be bothered though by their mishaps. They would pick themselves up, look around as if hoping nobody was watching, and go about their business.

In flight, the gooney bird was a sight to behold. They were masters of the air, spreading their magnificent wings and effortlessly riding the wind for hours at a time.

Black Footed Albatross

There were many other birds as well on Midway. Another of particular interest was the Black-Footed Albatross. These looked to be similar in size to the the Laysan and they kept to themselves in small bunches and would generally have nothing to do with the gooney birds. Occasionally though a Black-Foot and a Laysan would mate and have a hybrid chick. In fact a sailor pointed one out to me. The Laysan would walk erect and bound up and down with each step. The Black-Foot would walk slightly stooped over and not bounce while walking. The hybrid looked like a Black-Foot and walked slightly stooped but bounced while walking. It was a noticeable difference. Also, none of the other birds would have anything to do with the hybrid, shunned by the Laysans and the Black-Foots alike. So the poor bird was doomed to a life of solitude, shunned by all, and since it was a hybrid, unable to reproduce. Nevertheless, it returned to Midway during the mating season, if for no other reason than to be an object of scorn. (Reminds me of the old Cher song, "Halfbreed")

Black Footed Boobie

Well I finished up the rest of the afternoon bird watching and talking a few pictures. I remember I went by the library but they had mostly old magazines. I also went by the ship's store to find something edible to take back to the BOQ. I ended up taking several back several cans of hominy and Spam, which was about all they had. This would be my primary diet during many nights of working ham radio.

Gooney Bird Statue

Next time I'll talk about some of the medical miracles worked by the Surgeon General of Midway.


  1. The gooney birds mating call looks like Penny the beagle when she throws her head back and lets out a screech.

    Hominy and Spam might sustain life, but it sounds like an awfully boring diet over an extended period of time. Of course I know you don't cook and working HAM radio was more important than walking back to the dining room.

    Debbie Hamilton
    Right Truth

  2. The only thing I know about the Gooney's on Midway (the birds), is that in the past I've heard that provided an unwanted obstacle for plane take offs and landings. Was that problem solved?

  3. A very interesting and captivating post. I had heard of goonie birds, but in the context of flying boats. Thanks for the introduction to the real thing.

  4. Ron, I guess they solved the gooney bird problem when the navy stopped using Midway as a base in 1993. Before that many a jet engine succomed to bird ingestion and bird strike.

    Thanks, Lizzard, I'm glad you were captivated.