Levin: Avian Endurance

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(HOST)  As migrating birds return to the North Country, commentator Ted Levin is thinking about avian endurance – both in the air and on the nest.  

(LEVIN) In the northwestern corner of the Hawaiian Islands, a thousand miles from Honolulu, Midway Atoll straddles a submerged volcano.  Its flanks eroded into the Pacific more than a million years ago.

Midway was a prominent staging ground during the Cold War, and the site of a fierce navel battle in 1942 that turned the tide against Japan in World War Two.  In 1996, the jurisdiction of the atoll was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Department of the Interior.  This coral necklace is now managed as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, home to two million nesting seabirds, including the largest colony of Laysan albatross in the world.

In order to see a Laysan albatross in Vermont something very drastic would have to happen to the configuration of the continents.  These large, thin-winged seabirds wander the Pacific Ocean, often very far from land.  But even in this landlocked state, the story of one particular Laysan albatross is worth repeating.

Recently, the U.S. Geologic Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the oldest known wild bird in the United States had become a mother, again, at the age of sixty.

Any bird this old has to have a name.  

This bird’s name is Wisdom.  She was first banded incubating an egg on Midway in 1956.  She’s worn out five bird bands.  Since the Laysan albatross doesn’t breed until the age of five, more often eight or nine, Wisdom’s hatch date was conservatively placed at 1951.  If she were a person she’d likely be receiving monthly social security checks. Instead, she’s raising a chick at the age of sixty plus.

The Laysan albatross mates for life, lays one egg a year, and doesn’t breed every year.  Nothing is known about her mate, but Wisdom has likely raised more than thirty chicks in her lifetime because experienced parents tend to be better parents than young breeders.  She also nested in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Laysan albatross feeds on fish eggs and squid skimmed off the surface of the ocean, with head down, wings stretched, and gliding without flapping.  For the first three to five years after fledging and when it’s not breeding an albatross will never touch land.  It will sleep at sea, sometimes on the wing.  Like a paper airplane, it will bank off updrafts in the troughs of waves.  On and on and on, for an average of 50,000 miles a year looping around the north Pacific from Hawaii to the Gulf of Alaska.  Wisdom has flown two to three million miles since she was first banded, about the equivalent of six trips from the Earth to the moon and back, with miles to spare.

In Samuel Coleridge’s poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," an unfortunate sailor has to wear an albatross around his neck as punishment for killing the bird.  But killing them was common.  The first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands, Captain James Cook, fed his crew albatross.

Fortunately, Wisdom’s ancestors weren’t among them.

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