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The albatross: A bird built to soar

Harald Franzen
May 11, 2018

Albatrosses have the longest wings in the animal kingdom. And they are masters at using them efficiently. In fact, they spend most of their time up in the clouds, and very little with their feet on the ground

Two albatrosses kissing
They may not be kissing but albatrosses are in fact monogamousImage: picture-alliance/Anka Agency/G. Lacz

Sailors have long considered it bad luck to kill an albatross. And for good reason. The mighty bird and seafaring men and women seek the same things: open seas and favorable winds.

The albatross seems built for both.

Two species — the wandering and the southern royal albatross — share the title of birds with the largest wingspan in the world. On average, their wings spread to three meters (9.8 feet). The longest recorded wing specimens reach almost four meters.

They use those big wings to travel incredible distances. Wandering albatrosses have been known to fly 120,000 kilometers (74,500 miles) across the Antarctic Ocean in a single year.

Great albatrosses, the larger members of the albatross family, are huge. Still, flapping such massive wings takes a lot of effort, which is why they do so as little as possible. 

 wandering albatross flyiing
The wandering albatross (pictured here) and southern royal albatross have the longest wingspans in the world, making it perfectly adapted to extensive glidingImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/K. Wothe

They are made for gliding. In fact, they are so well designed that when in the air, they will glide an impressive 22 to 23 meters for every meter of altitude they lose in the process.

The birds also use a technique called dynamic soaring, whereby they surf along the boundary between two air masses. This allows them to stay up for a long time with virtually no effort aside from a few occastional corrections to their course.

But their flying ability is about more than just big wings and skill. Albatross anatomy includes a few unique features that aid them in a life of almost constant flight.

Albatrosses have their own version of pitot tubes — devices that allow airplane pilots to measure airspeed — in the form of two tubes that run along the sides of their beaks.

They can also lock their wings in place when they are fully extended so they can glide without any muscle action. As a result, an albatross heart rate during flight is almost as low as when it is resting. 

Pairs of wandering albatrosses breading
Great albatrosses such as the wandering albatross (pictured here) spend very little time on solid ground. When they do, it's usually to breedImage: picture-alliance/WILDLIFE/A.Rouse

Given how relaxing it is for albatrosses to stay in the air, it's probably unsurprising that they spend very little time on solid ground. The birds spend most of their lives out on the endless expanse of the ocean. When they come to shore, it's almost invariably to breed.

By bird standards, albatrosses lead unusually long lives — often well beyond 50 years. Since they have time, many of them take their time before they settle down — figuratively speaking. Some species don't start to mate until they are 10 years old. Choosing a mate is an elaborate affair for albatrosses and once they commit, it's for good.

The monogamous birds spend a lot of time and effort on rearing their offspring, laying only a single egg at a time and usually only once every two years. They share parenting duties with both parents incubating the eggs — a process that takes longer than for any other bird. And once the chick hatches, the parents spend several more months on land, tending to their offspring before all three of them can head out to sea together. 


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