A Laysan albatross living on the remains of an island 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu is the oldest-known bird living in the wild. Her name is Wisdom, and she is 63 years old.
Wisdom was first banded in 1956 as an adult when she was estimated to be five years old. But she could just as easily have been 10, making her 73. Or maybe she was 25, putting her in the same decade as that other beauty, Sophia Loren. Maybe.
With their six-foot, propeller-like wingspans, Laysan albatrosses have been called the “greatest long-distance wanderers on Earth” by award-winning author and scientist Carl Safina.
Albatrosses spend approximately 95% of their lives gliding over the pleats of the sea, logging several million-flight miles in their lifetimes. Safina proposes that albatrosses don’t fly as much as they float in the air due to the construction of bones in their wings, which have evolved to possess long “arm” bones and short “hands.” This proportion of bones aligns itself more with the arms of humans rather than other birds, suggesting, Safina says, that if we were suddenly transformed into birds, it would be albatrosses. How cool.
What’s more, albatrosses lock their “shoulder” and “elbow” joints when gliding, and exert little to no energy as they skim the waves of the North Pacific. Their grace would be admired by prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. As their heartbeats slow, in this manner, albatrosses can “sleep” on the wing.
This seabird’s mastery of gravity and wind makes flight look easy. They can cover hundreds of miles without a single wingbeat. Gliding is a bit like meditation for them. It’s nothing for albatrosses to journey from the Hawaiian to the Aleutian Islands for a meal of flying fish, squid, and fish eggs. That’s a couple thousand miles. One way.
The only time albatrosses return to land—and the only time their gracefulness is questioned—is to breed, which they do not do until they are eight to 10 years of age. Their legs sit far back on the body, making the act of walking a little funny–in fact, they look a little like Charlie Chaplin. But their fidelity on land would impress the most dedicated ascetic.
Laysan albatrosses generally partner for life. That’s not to say there aren’t divorces and re-marriages and a helpful male here and there fertilizing the eggs of lone females, as was the case on Kauai where a re-colonizing group found themselves with an imbalance of females over males. But it does require the incubating and feeding work of two adults to feed one chick, so there are cases of females pairing up to raise a chick—as long as one of the two eggs laid by the female-female pair is fertilized and hatches. In the majority of these cases, this doesn’t happen. But, still, the partners take turns incubating the egg and will not abandon it until weeks after all the other chicks in the neighborhood have hatched.
What scientists have learned is that albatrosses could be said to be more socially monogamous than sexually monogamous. That is, they commit to partnering to care for and feed whatever chick hatches in their nest. And they do so with a dedication that is astounding. An egg is incubated for approximately 65 days before it hatches. And, then, the chick doesn’t fledge for another five-and-a-half months. Yet the parents will not abandon an egg or chick even when faced with the snapping jaws of a dog—or cat or rat or pig.
The same with the chicks. Because they cannot fly until they are five to six months old, they are just as vulnerable. A few weeks after hatching, chicks lose the four-inch, serrated protection in the form of their parents’ bill. This is when the parents leave to forage at sea, their return feeding visits lengthening in days—up to two weeks—as the chick ages.
When Laysan albatross chicks finally take to the air the very first time in mid-summer, they head for the sea, their white bodies and dark grey wings disappearing into the distant horizon where they will make a living for the next three to five years. At that time, something within them signals a return to land. That spot will most likely be the same place they hatched, and they will spend the next few years selecting the right and perfect mate with which to raise more Laysan albatrosses. Scientists estimate that Wisdom, with a year off here and there for molting, has produced 30 to 35 offspring over the course of her life.
After four months away, today, two Laysan albatrosses were spotted at Kilauea Point on Kauai’s North Shore. They are, most likely, males who will ready their nest sites as they await the return of their mates. And, thus, the 2014/15 breeding season of Laysan albatrosses has begun.
How cool is that?