Oldest wild bird in U.S. survives tsunami

HONOLULU Mon Mar 21, 2011 7:32pm EDT

HONOLULU (Reuters) - A 60-something albatross ranked as America's oldest free-flying bird has thrilled biologists by surviving a tsunami that struck the Pacific island where it nests, the Fish & Wildlife Service said on Monday.

The elderly bird named Wisdom and her recently hatched chick were spotted alive about a week after Sand Island in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was struck by a 5-foot tidal wave unleashed by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit March 11 off the coast of Japan.

The tsunami killed an estimated 2,000 adult albatrosses and about 110,000 chicks in the Refuge, a U.S. posession about a third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo in the North Pacific.

Those tallies represent a small fraction of the overall population of 1 million Laysan albatross -- Wisdom's species -- that nest in the refuge, but 20 percent of this year's hatchlings.

"It's a dangerous world out there, there's lots going on, so I would say she's very lucky," said Barry Stieglitz, project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.

She was first tagged with an aluminum identification band in 1956 when approximately five years of age. Her latest chick, thought to be her 35th, was hatched weeks ago, making her a mother again at the ripe old age of about 60.

"Because she is the oldest, she's able to provide us some information that no other albatross can at this point in time, and that's exactly how long-living are these animals," Stieglitz said.

Biologists estimate that Wisdom has logged about 3 million flying miles in her lifetime, the equivalent of six round trips to the Moon.

Laysan albatross, one of 21 species of the large sea birds, breed on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai and feed off the west coast of North America, including the Gulf of Alaska. They typically mate for life and spend their first three to five years in constant flight, never touching land, and are believed to even sleep while aloft.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Jerry Norton)

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