Black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes)

GenusPhoebastria (1)
SizeLength: 74 - 81 cm (2)
Wingspan: 200 - 215 cm (2)
Weight3 - 3.5 kg (2)

The black-footed albatross is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (3).

One of the smaller members of the family, the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) is a uniform dusky brown with a white ring around the base of the bill. There is also white across the upperparts and under the tail. The bill, legs and feet are blackish in colour (4). Like all albatrosses, the wings are long and straight and the birds can glide almost effortlessly a few metres above the surface of the sea (4).

Black-footed albatrosses are birds of the northern Pacific Ocean, ranging from the sub-Arctic sea southwards beyond the Hawaiian Islands, west as far as the China Sea and east to the North American coast, extending as far south as Baja California (4). This species once nested on many islands in the northern Pacific Ocean but today breeds only on the Hawaiian archipelago, including the Laysan Islands and Midway Island, and in the western Pacific on three Japanese islands (4).

When not at sea, these albatrosses choose bare slopes and coastlines with little vegetation, or with short turf on which to breed (4).

Black-footed albatrosses, like most of their species, mate for life. Males are the first to arrive at the breeding grounds in October, and re-claim their nest site which they and their partner might have used for many years. Once the females arrive three weeks later, mating takes place and the birds perform a ritual, re-establishing the pair bond (2).

Both birds work to rebuild the nest and take turns to incubate their single egg. If the egg is predated or lost to other natural causes, the birds will not attempt to breed again until the following year. Once the chick hatches, both parents brood it in turn, taking turns to procure food for the youngster. Albatross chicks stay in the nest for a long time; six months in the case of the black-footed, and it may wander away from the nest site when it reaches two or three months old (2).

Black-footed albatross feed mainly on squid, fish and crustaceans, but they also take floating offal and carrion (4). The birds are mostly active at night and early in the morning. The spend most of the day sitting on the surface of the ocean in groups (2).

The black-footed, like many other albatrosses, is currently under threat from by-catch in the long-line fishing industry; as many as 2,000 birds a year are thought to be lost from fishing vessels operating out of the USA, and as many as 6,000 from Japanese fisheries. Until a decade ago, most bird losses involving this species came from squid fishing and drift nets (5). They are also at risk from increasing marine pollution, swallowing waste plastics, storm damage to their nests and chicks and possible volcanic eruption on the island of Torishima (4).

Currently, the world population of this albatross is estimated to be around 109,000 breeding birds (278,000 in total). Three-quarters of the breeding population nests on the Hawaiian Islands, where there has been nearly a ten percent decline in numbers over the nine years from 1992 to 2001 (5). Projected figures, (using estimated bird losses through fishing by-catch) predict a 60 percent reduction in the global population over the next three generations (6).

Whilst all the Hawaiian breeding sites are protected within the US National Wildlife Refuge system, or within the State of Hawaii Seabird Sanctuaries, there is still a need to tackle the bird losses through long-line fishing. In 1991, a 50 Nautical Mile Protected Species Zone was established around the north-western Hawaiian Islands and no long-line fishing is permitted within this area. Elsewhere, satellite tracking of the birds and regular site surveys continue in order to monitor the status of this species, and efforts are being made to encourage fisheries to adopt methods which will reduce the losses through by-catch (4).

For further information on the black-footed albatross see:


Authenticated (15/11/05) by Dr Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy, RSPB.

  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2012)
  2. Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (April, 2004)
  3. Global Register of Migratory Species (April, 2008)
  4. BirdLife International (April, 2008)
  5. BirdLife International. (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK. Available at:
  6. Blight, L.K., Smith, J.L. and Cooper, J.M. (2007) COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes in Canada. COSEWIC Secretariat, Environment Canada, Ontario, Canada.