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10 Soaring Facts About Albatrosses

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To golfers, an albatross means that you’re three under par on a single hole. To poetry majors, it’s a centuries-old metaphor for unbearable burdens. To bird enthusiasts, it's one of earth’s most wondrous creatures. 

1. THEY CAN LIVE INTO AT LEAST THEIR SIXTIES.

In 2013, a wild Laysan albatross named Wisdom made headlines when it was discovered she was still laying eggs and raising chicks at the age of 63. Her longevity in and of itself isn’t all that unusual: These ocean birds are known to reach their 60th and possibly even 70th birthdays.

2. THEY HAVE THE LARGEST WINGSPAN OF ANY LIVING BIRD.

The Wandering albatross has a wingspan that measures up to 11 feet 4 inches from end to end. But even that seems measly when compared to the now-extinct Pelagornis, a prehistoric seabird with a beak full of tooth-like spikes and a wingspan of at least 17 feet.

3. THE PRINCE OF WALES IS THEIR CELEBRITY SPOKESMAN.

Twenty-two species of albatross are currently known to science, and every single one is considered vulnerable, threatened, near-threatened, or endangered by conservationists. Longline fishing hooks are especially dangerous to large seabirds: The hooks, which can grab hold of and drown birds, kill an estimated 100,000 albatrosses annually.

Thankfully, the birds have a powerful ally on their side. During his Royal Navy career, Queen Elizabeth II’s oldest son, Charles, grew rather fond of the great gliders. “I remember sailing long distances across the oceans and one of the most marvelous treats of those long passages was to come out on deck and see another albatross or two circling around or following the wake of the ship," he explained to the Albatross Task Force at a reception in 2009. "There was something encouraging and heartening about the fact that you were being escorted by these extraordinary birds.” Now, he's a champion of more avian-friendly fishing techniques. 

4. ALBATROSSES PAIR FOR LIFE (BUT DON'T PRACTICE MONOGAMY).

When a young albatross reaches 6 to 10 years old, it will usually start looking for a significant other. Almost all couples stick together until one party dies, forming unions that can last 50 years or longer. Still, infidelity is rampant. According to a 2006 mass paternity test, 10.7 percent of 75 sampled Waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) chicks weren’t sired by their mother’s mate. Another study found that one female had sex with 49 partners over a seven-week period. Males are equally promiscuous, but stay committed to helping raise their mate’s babies—including those fathered by other birds.

5. GLOBAL WARMING MAY CAUSE A (TEMPORARY) POPULATION SPIKE.

Climate change has had a huge effect on oceanic wind patterns. Come mealtime, faster air currents have enabled hungry albatrosses to not only travel greater distances but save valuable time while doing so. This is probably responsible for an average weight increase of 20 percent since the 1970s. And since the birds now spend fewer hours on food-gathering, they’re free to breed more often. The combination might increase albatross numbers across the board, though it doesn’t look sustainable long-term. Wind speeds will only keep increasing, and excessively fast airstreams are dangerous for soaring birds. 

6. TIGER SHARKS ARE A TOP PREDATOR.

Fledgling albatrosses can be an easy target on the ocean’s surface. Once nesting season ends, tiger sharks tend to gravitate toward the nearest albatross hotspot in huge numbers. In some areas, the predatory fish may be responsible for taking out 10 percent of chicks reared each year. 

7. ENGINEERS ARE TRYING TO DECODE THEIR FLIGHT SECRETS.

Without a single wing flap, these birds can coast for several hundred miles—a remarkable feat that no other flying creature is capable of matching. What’s the big secret? Staying current. On long trips, the big birds spend half of their time facing the wind and using it to fly upward. Then they’ll shift and dip back down towards the ocean, catching another skyward draft moments later. By repeating this technique, they can cover enormous distances with very little effort. Copying the strategy just might help humans design more fuel-efficient aircrafts.

8. THEY'VE GOT A SURPRISINGLY GOOD SENSE OF SMELL.

Seabirds don’t usually get much credit for their olfactory skills. Nevertheless, many rely on scent to help track down prey; albatrosses can follow a mouth-watering aroma for over 12 miles. 

9. THEY HAVE A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH SUNFISH.

The world’s heaviest boned fish, common sunfishes (Mola mola), are rib-less, tailless, flat-sided oddballs. Big ones can weigh 5000 pounds and reach 11 feet in length. The critters are also very vulnerable to parasites, 40 different types of which may plague them. Luckily, they have a helpful (though not entirely selfless) ally. Recently, Laysan albatrosses have been spotted actively pursuing sunfishes from whose skin they later plucked some crustacean hitchhikers. The birds got a meal and the sunfish got a cleaning. Win-win. 

10. MANY FORM SAME-SEX COUPLES.

As biologist Lindsay C. Young is quick to remind ornithologists, not all pairs are straight. “I wouldn’t assume that what you’re looking at is a male and a female,” she told the New York Times. The evidence backs up her advice. In a 2008 survey, 31 percent of the long-term Laysan albatross couples on Hawaii’s Oahu Island were revealed to be female-female partnerships. Out there, the sex ratio is quite imbalanced, with males being significantly outnumbered. So two females will often pair off, enjoy a little hetero hanky-panky on the side, and raise chicks together. 

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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