The Royal Northern Albatross is the largest bird with a wingspan of more than 3 m (10 ft). These remarkable birds fly over the ocean foraging for up to 13 000 km (8 000 miles) in a single trip. They are estimated to travel in the region of 190 000 km a year (118 000 miles) !
Since the days of sailing ships sailors were amazed that the bird seemed unaffected by the weather and effortlessly flew for great distances. The even flew into the wind with what appeared to be little effort. The Albatross was most probably made famous by the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and first published in 1798. The poem reflects the superstitious nature of the sailors of the day seeing the bird as a good omen. The story gets a little more complicated when the mariner shoots the bird and has to wear it around his neck as punishment.
The birds typically spend 5 years at sea and return to land when ready to breed. These amazing birds can live up to 60 years of age. There has been a study on the islands of Midway where the returning albatrosses collide with aircraft while soaring over the runways. The estimation is that around 34 000 bird have been killed but this has appeared not to have had much of an impact on their numbers. The suggestion made to reduce the problem was to flatten the ground for 750 ft (230 m)from the center of the runway which would reduce the air currents around the runways that the birds use.
So, what do the birds eat while at sea? and what about sleep?
Studies have shown that some birds prefer certain diets but generally they eat a mixture of foods such as squid, fish, crustaceans,krill, zooplankton and carrion. But who eats the albatross?
The albatross is predated on by the tiger shark but also other large predatory fish. This highlights their need to stay airborne rather than resting on the sea. Hence the belief is that they sleep on the wing but there are no studies as yet to support this.
From a breeding perspective the oldest recorded female still laying eggs ad raising chicks was a Laysan Albatross and she was 63 years of age!
An albatross pair for life but are nevertheless promiscuous with a study that involved a mass paternity test that revealed just over 10 percent of young were not related to the father that was helping to raise them. The study also found that the males were equally promiscuous but the pair stayed committed to raising their chicks no matter who the father was.
Albatrosses form colonies usually on isolated islands, usually on headlands with good approaches to the sea. The birds are philopatric meaning they return to where they were born when they are ready to breed. Although birds have reached sexual maturity at 5 years they spend time in the colonies, often every year for a few years before actually breeding themselves. Incubation lasts around 70 to 80 days, making the albatross the record holder for the longest wingspan as well as being the longest incubation of any bird.
The chick is brooded for 3 weeks at which time it is able to defend itself and thermoregulate itself. From here on the parents feed the chick. The interesting point here is the parents alternate long and short foraging trips when feeding the young.
How do the birds manage to stay in flight for so long?
Their technique is to find a skyward draft and to face into the wind. This gradually lifts the bird higher and higher until it is so high that feels the need to return to a lower point. It will then move out of the draft and glides back down to the ocean finding another upward draft and repeats the process.
The real incredible part is how the bird manages to navigate back to its breeding island and its flight techniques are instinctively there…