Banding is helping unlock avian mysteries

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Farm and Dairy file photo

In 2002, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Ornithologist Chandler Robbins found a banded Laysan albatross on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. He reported the band number to the federal bird-banding lab.

Amazingly, Robbins had banded the bird Dec. 10, 1956. Robbins was 40 years old at the time. (He’s 97 today.) In 2006, the FWS asked Robbins where he had originally banded the bird.

After receiving Robbins’ response, an FWS biologist named John Klavitter returned to the site and found the still banded bird. Klavitter removed the old band and replaced it with a red band so it would be easier to spot in the future. Knowing that albatrosses take seven to eight years to reach reproductive age, this bird was at least 50 years old. At the time, the oldest known albatross was a New Zealand bird named “Grandma.”

To honor the new oldest albatross, Klavitter named her “Wisdom” and he included the name in his 2006 report.

Productive life

Since 2006, Wisdom has raised at least eight chicks (one egg per year) and as many as 40 in her lifetime. And since she was banded in 1956, Wisdom has flown more than three million miles.

From July through October, Laysan albatrosses live at sea. With 6.5-foot wingspans, they fly effortlessly on the wind. Calm days ground them on the water. They rest and sleep on the water. And at night they feed when squid, their favorite food, come to the surface. Adults arrive at breeding islands in November, and females lay a single egg between mid-November and mid-December.

Both parents incubate the egg for about 64 days. Incubation bouts last for days or sometimes weeks while one parent feeds at sea. The incubating parent lives off body fat while on the nest. Most young leave the nesting island in July.

Sharks take albatrosses as they learn to fly and rest on the surface of the water. This nesting season, Wisdom’s chick began hatching Feb. 1 while the male albatross tended the nest. Wisdom returned to the nest with a belly full of food on Feb. 7.

Her mate left almost immediately for his turn to hunt. Today, Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird. She is at least 65 years old. The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds. It was not always so. Pre-1900, albatrosses were slaughtered for their feathers to be used in the millinery trade. Non-native mammals, such as pigs, dogs and cats decimated seabird populations because they could not deal with land-based predators.

Easy prey

They resolutely tended their nests, and so were easy prey for introduced mammals and human hunters. These conditions motivated Theodore Roosevelt to designate the Northern Hawaiian Islands as one of the first federally protected seabird reserves in the country in 1909. It took some time, but protection worked.

Today, albatrosses arrive on the Midway Atoll in late November by the hundreds of thousands. In December, FWS volunteers counted 470,000 nests across the atoll. Since each nests represents two adults, the total breeding population is 940,000. And that does not include juvenile non-breeding individuals.

Unlocking the mystery

Only through long-term banding efforts can scientists unlock the mysteries of avian natural history. That a bird could live more than 65 years was unthinkable in the 1950s. Thanks to banding programs, we now know it’s true.

“Wisdom is an iconic symbol of inspiration and hope,” said Midway Refuge Manager Robert Peyton in a recent statement. “From a scientific perspective, albatrosses are a critical indicator species for the world’s oceans that sustain millions of human beings as well. In the case of Wisdom, she’s breaking longevity records of previously banded birds by at least a decade.”

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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