istock
istock

10 Soaring Facts About Albatrosses

istock
istock

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. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
iStock
iStock

Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
iStock

So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
iStock

It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: An eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
iStock

Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch them themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE ...

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
iStock

Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: The male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
iStock

Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
iStock

Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
iStock

In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weigh about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
iStock

People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
iStock

Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
iStock

You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
iStock

It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
iStock

What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
iStock

If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
iStock

There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
iStock
iStock

Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios