Friday, March 18, 2011

Hot Chick Looks Great at 60!

News Flash! Check out the BBC Report* at the Bottom of Post

This just in from Midway Atoll -- The oldest known U.S. wild bird -- a coyly conservative 60 -- is a new mom -- again. The bird, a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, was spotted a few weeks ago with a chick by John Klavitter, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and the deputy manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Wisdom with chick
Courtesy USGS
The bird has sported and worn out 5 bird bands since she was first banded by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Chandler Robbins in 1956 as she incubated an egg. Chandler rediscovered Wisdom in 2001. In 1956, he estimated Wisdom to be at least 5 years old at the time since this is the earliest age at which these birds breed, though they more typically breed at 8 or 9 after an involved courtship lasting several years. This means, of course, that Wisdom is likely to be in her early sixties.

There must be something to all that fish oil she consumes because Wisdom does not look her age.

"She looks great," said Bruce Peterjohn, the chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. said in a prepared statement. "And, she is now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program," he added.

"To know that she can still successfully raise young at age 60-plus, that is beyond words. While the process of banding a bird has not changed greatly during the past century, the information provided by birds marked with a simple numbered metal band has transformed our knowledge of birds."

Wisdom has likely raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life, Peterjohn said, though the number may be higher because experienced parents tend to be better parents than younger breeders. Albatross lay only one egg a year, but it takes much of a year to incubate and raise the chick. After years in which they have successfully raised and fledged a chick - which on Midway is about two-thirds of the time - the parents
may take the occasional next year off from parenting. Klavitter said that Wisdom also nested in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

And since adult albatross mate for life, with both parents raising the young, it makes one wonder if Wisdom has had the same partner all these years or not. Almost as amazing as being a parent at 60 is the number of miles this bird has likely logged - about 50,000 miles a year as an adult - which means that Wisdom has flown at least 2 to 3 million miles since she was first banded. Or, to put it another way, that's 4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.

Laysan Albatross near Alaska coast
Courtesy: USGS
One reason for all these miles is that Laysan albatross spend the first 3 to 5 years after fledging at sea, never touching land. Then they return to breed in the northwestern Hawaiian Island chain but some of their feeding grounds are actually off the coast of western North America, including the Gulf of Alaska. The parents tend to feed closer to the islands where their nests are when the chicks are very young, but they regularly commute to the northern Pacific Ocean and even the Gulf of Alaska when the chicks are older or when the adults are incubating. They convert the fish eggs and squid oil they eat into a rich, oily liquid, which they regurgitate and feed to their chick.

In the non-breeding part of the year, albatross do not touch land -- the birds, scientists believe, often even sleep while flying over the ocean. Peterjohn noted that Wisdom's remarkable record is just one example of
the valuable data provided by bird banding.

About Albatross

Albatross are legendary birds for many reasons - in Samuel Coleridge's poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a sailor has to wear an albatross around his neck as punishment for killing the bird. According to
seafaring legends, albatross are the souls of lost sailors and should not be killed. However, as reported by James Cook, sailors regularly killed and ate albatross.

Albatross are remarkable fliers who travel thousands of miles on wind currents without ever flapping their wings. They do this by angling their 6-foot wings to adjust for wind currents and varying air speeds above
the water.

Nineteen of 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Present threats to the birds include lead poisoning of chicks on Midway from lead paint used in previous decades; longline fishing, where the birds are inadvertently hooked and drowned, though conservation groups have banded with fishermen and dramatically lowered the number of deaths from
this cause; and pollution, especially from garbage floating on the ocean.

Researchers found this collection of plastic
in the gut of a Laysan Albatross carcass,
an all too common occurance.
Courtesy: USGS 
The birds ingest large amounts of marine debris - by some estimates 5 tons of plastic are unknowingly fed to albatross chicks each year by their parents. Although the plastic may not kill the chicks directly, it reduces
their food intake, which leads to dehydration and most likely lessens their chance of survival. In addition, albatross are threatened by invasive species such as rats and wild cats, which prey on chicks, nesting adults
and eggs. Albatross evolved on islands where land mammals were absent, so have no defenses against them.

Japanese Catastrophe Update -- Thousands of seabirds were killed at Midway when the tsunami generated by last month's massive earthquake off Japan flooded the remote atoll northwest of the main Hawaiian islands. A U.S. federal wildlife official said at least 1,000 adult and adolescent Laysan albatross were killed, along with thousands of chicks.
Many drowned or were buried under debris as waves reaching 5 feet high rolled over the low-lying atoll about four hours after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake. There has been no word yet on Wisdom. But, Barry W. Stieglitz, the project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuges, said the bird deaths could account for a significant share of Laysan albatross chicks hatched during the current season.

He added that the white-and-black feathered Laysan albatross is not in danger of becoming extinct. About 1 million of the birds live at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge about 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, making it the largest Laysan albatross colony in the world.

* BBC Report -- March 16, 2011 -- Thousands of albatrosses and other endangered species at a wildlife sanctuary north-west of Hawaii have been killed by the tsunami which devastated Japan, US officials say.

Thousands of petrels and fish were also killed as huge waves swept over parts of the remote, low-lying Midway atoll.

The sanctuary is home to more than two million birds. One lucky survivor was Wisdom, an albatross about 60 years of age, who is the oldest-known bird in the US. No word if her chick survived, but tens of thousands of chicks were killed by the tusnami.