Oldest known U.S. albatross hatches new chick

HONOLULU Wed Mar 9, 2011 10:22am EST

HONOLULU (Reuters Life!) - The oldest known free-flying bird in the United States, a roughly 60-year-old albatross named Wisdom, hatched her chick weeks ago on Sand Island at Midway, wildlife officials reported.

The sea bird's advanced age may be double or triple the expected life span for a Laysan albatross, but biologists are still gathering information and learning about the species.

Wisdom holds the record as the oldest wild specimen documented during the 90-year history of the U.S. and Canadian bird-banding research program.

A U.S. Geological Survey scientists first tagged the bird with an aluminum identification band when she was about 5 years old in 1956 as she was incubating an egg.

Since then, the albatross has logged about 3 million flying miles (4.8 million(, the equivalent of six round trips to the Moon.

"It's really exciting to see that these birds are long-living and still raising chicks at 60 years old or older," said John Klavitter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who spotted Wisdom with her chick in February.

Sand Island is the largest piece of land in the Midway Atoll, a tiny U.S. territory that lies about a third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo in the North Pacific.

"It's a nice success story for wildlife and conservationists," Klavitter told Reuters in a telephone interview from Midway.

The chick, whose gender is unknown at present, is doing well. Wisdom and her mate are taking turns feeding it, and the young bird it will soon sport its own band, Klavitter said.

He said Wisdom has probably raised about 35 chicks during her lifetime. Her species generally mates with one partner for life and lays only one egg at a time. But scientists do not know whether Wisdom has had the same mate for all these years.

Laysan albatross breed on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, at Kaena Point, and on Kauai, at Kilauea Point. Their feeding grounds are off the west coast of North America, including the Gulf of Alaska, and they spend their first three to five years constantly flying, never touching land. Scientists believe they even sleep while flying over the ocean.

Nineteen of 21 albatross species are listed as threatened with extinction from a variety of causes, including lead poisoning on Midway Atoll, injuries from longline fishing, climate change and ingestion of garbage floating on the ocean.

An estimated five tons of plastic are unknowingly fed to albatross chicks by their unsuspecting parents each year. Luckily, Wisdom's home at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is protected, Klavitter said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)

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