Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (2023)

By Rachel Kaufman

published

The biggest flying bird in the world can go for years without touching land, has complicated, comical mating dances that take years to learn, and might even help scientists track down illegal fishing vessels.

Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (1)

Albatrosses are big, majestic birds that can be found soaring above most of the world’s oceans.

These frequent fliers are known for spending months in the air without touching down, as well as having some unique mating arrangements. However, thanks to harmful fishing techniques and predation by invasive species, albatrosses around the world are either under threat or endangered.

(Video) Albatrosses Use Their Nostrils To Fly | Nature's Biggest Beasts | BBC Earth

There are 23 species of albatrosses, though arguably the most famous is the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), which is the largest flying bird in the world. This bird has a 11-foot (3.4 meter) wingspan, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (opens in new tab) — even bigger than the famous California condor — and it uses those massive flappers to travel thousands of miles in a single journey.

Related: Your dumb party balloons are killing all the seabirds (opens in new tab)

A life in the air

But rather than flapping its wings, wandering albatrosses (and many other large albatrosses) travel such far distances by holding their extended wings in place so that the air rushing around the wings generates lift, similar to an airplane's wings. An airplane forces air over its wings with an engine, whereas albatross take advantage of the extremely windy latitudes in the southern oceans.

This latitude range is "called the 'roaring 40s' and 'furious 50s' for a reason," said Andrea Angel, the Albatross Task Force manager with Birdlife South Africa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bird conservation. With near constant wind in their environment, albatrosses are able to "lock their elbow joints and literally just fix their wings [in place] and just glide," Angel said. The birds also use something called "dynamic soaring," which involves changing the angle of their wings relative to the wind, to maximize the lift generated — a similar technique could help unmanned research aircraft stay aloft for months, the Independent reported (opens in new tab).

Related: A hot blob in the Pacific Ocean caused 1 million seabirds to die (opens in new tab)

An albatross can go a year or more without setting foot on land, Angel said, although the birds do touch down in water in order to feed on the squid and fish that make up their diet. In fact, it's the tiny alpine swift, not the albatross, that holds the record for non-stop distance flying, as reported in a 2013 study published in the journal Nature Communications (opens in new tab).

As for sleep, Angel said that it's very likely that albatrosses sleep on the wing. A 2016 study published in Nature Communications (opens in new tab) described how a distant cousin of the albatross, the frigatebird, has many, seconds-long periods of sleep while flying, suggesting that sleeping in the air is definitely possible for other long-distance traveling seabirds. And, based on microchip-tracked movements of albatrosses, "they can [fly] for hours on end, and so it is theorized that they do sleep on the wing," Angel said. "It's an accepted fact [that] because of their movements, they have to sleep."

Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (2)

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All albatrosses are very long-lived. The oldest wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) named Wisdom, who was tagged in 1956 at the Laysan albatross colony at Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean when she was already a mature adult. That makes her at least 66 years old, but she's likely older, and she's still going strong — as of 2018 she was still raising chicks, NPR reported (opens in new tab). According to Breck Tyler, a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz and retired research scientist who studied the Laysan albatross colony on Midway Atoll for decades, there are other Laysan albatrosses just a few years younger than Wisdom, so "she's probably not an outlier."

Related: World's oldest wild breeding bird is expecting her 41st chick (opens in new tab)

(Video) FACTS ABOUT THE BIGGEST FLYING BIRD WANDERING ALBATROSS

Although they're seabirds, albatrosses are generally poor divers, with few exceptions. The wandering albatross can only dive about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 1 m) into the ocean, yet based on an analysis of its diet, scientists are pretty sure the wandering albatross eats squid that live deeper in the water, and are too big for an albatross to convincingly take down. It's possible the large bird just waits until a squid swims up to the surface, but a more convincing hypothesis is that the birds are actually eating squid bits that have been vomited up by whales, as described in a 1994 study published in the journal Antarctic Science (opens in new tab).

After a meal of whale upchuck, an albatross might wash that down with some refreshing seawater. All seabirds have a gland above their eyes that functions like a miniature kidney, allowing them to drink salt water and excrete it through the tip of their beak, according to the Travis Audubon Society (opens in new tab).

Albatrosses mate for life, but aren't exclusive

Because albatrosses mate for life, picking the right partner is a major decision. All species of albatross have some sort of complicated mating dance. For the Laysan albatross, the dance has 24 separate, complex steps, and it takes years for males to learn them all, Tyler said. And until the young males can master the choreography, they won't find a mate, he said. The females can afford to be picky, so if a male's sequence of honks, whistles, wiggles and neck thrusts doesn't impress her, she'll just move on to the next suitor.

Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (3)

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But once a pair does form, the "divorce rate" of albatrosses is among the lowest in the animal kingdom, and because albatrosses are so long-lived, these pairs can persist for decades. For this reason, it's been posited that albatrosses are the "most romantic" bird. But that human characterization ignores some key facts about albatrosses, Tyler said.

An albatross mating pair only sees each other a few days a year, when they meet at their breeding grounds. After a few days of catching up, the pair takes turns incubating the egg; one stays behind while the other forages for food. After about 90 days, and when the chick is big enough, the mating pair go their separate ways for the rest of the year, according to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds (opens in new tab).

Related: Adorable photos of baby shorebirds (opens in new tab)

Although they mate for life, albatross pairs aren't exclusive. Casual sex between non-paired birds, and even forced copulation, is not uncommon, the New York Times reported in 2010 (opens in new tab). A 2006 study published in the journal IBIS (opens in new tab) found that out of 75 wandering albatross couples, about eight had chicks that weren't fathered by their mother's primary mate.

And in many albatross species, female-female pairs are quite common (so far, male-male pairs haven't been reported), as Live Science has previously reported (opens in new tab). Those females rely on "cheating" paired males or unpaired males to fertilize their eggs, and then the two females raise a clutch of two eggs together, without a male's involvement, the Times reported. Laysan albatross males and females look virtually identical, so unless you were specifically looking for evidence of same-sex pairs, you'd likely miss them, the Times said — and it's likely that many other species of birds, especially if there aren't enough males to go around, form similar pair bonds, Tyler said.

Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (4)

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(Video) Meet the Worlds Biggest Flying Bird | Albatross

Threats to albatrosses

All but one species of albatross are either threatened, endangered or likely to become so, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (opens in new tab). The biggest threats are invasive species at the birds' nesting grounds, and fishing vessels, which unintentionally snare birds when they're pursuing tuna and other commercial fish, Angel said.

Many of the world's albatrosses nest on islands that were once used as whaling vessel stopovers, Angel explained. With the human ships came cats and rats and mice. Gough Island in the South Atlantic, for example, is one of the most important seabird colonies, home to 24 different species of birds and multiple types of albatross. But the colony is gruesomely preyed upon by invasive mice that have evolved to be a much larger than normal size without the presence of predators, Hakai magazine reported.

Perhaps because they have no other predators that would attack them this way, Albatross have not evolved a way to defend themselves against a mouse attack, and so some of the adults sit motionless, letting "the mice nibble on their flesh while they steadfastly incubate their egg." On a number of important bird islands, conservationists are launching aggressive mouse-eradication programs to attempt to save the remaining birds, National Geographic reported (opens in new tab).

Related: In photos: Mice brutally attack and devour albatross on Gough Island (opens in new tab)

At sea, albatrosses face a different threat: fishing vessels. Albatrosses are pretty good at detecting fishing vessels — so good that researchers think the birds, outfitted with tiny radar detectors, could be used to find boats operating illegally, The New York Times reported.

Large fishing vessels have onboard processing facilities where fish heads and tails and guts are removed and dumped back into the sea, which attracts all sorts of seabirds. "It is a seabird spectacle," Angel said. But as the trawler is dumping fish guts, it's simultaneously dropping the giant fishing net back into the ocean for the next catch. Seabirds, including albatrosses, get entangled in the net cables and dragged under water, then drown. And longline fishing boats, in which a 30-mile-long (48 kilometer) floating fishing line is set with hundreds of baited hooks, also attract seabirds which see the enticing meal from the surface, but get caught on the hooks and drown.

BirdLife South Africa (opens in new tab) has reduced albatross deaths in the local trawl fishery by 99% by simply encouraging boats to use bird-scaring streamers and shifting the time that the boats dump out the fish waste to after the net is set. But worldwide there's still much more work to be done when it comes to encouraging commercial fishers to practice more seabird-friendly fishing techniques.

Additional resources:

  • Learn more about the relationship between birds and humans on Midway Atoll with this feature from American Bird Conservancy (opens in new tab)
  • Watch a Laysan albatross perform its complicated (and comical) mating dance (opens in new tab).
  • View not-quite-live-cam shots of albatrosses on Bird Island near the Antarctic Circle on BirdLife International’s Facebook page (opens in new tab).

Albatrosses: Facts about the biggest flying birds (5)

(Video) How the Largest Flying Bird of All Time Stayed Airborne

Rachel Kaufman

Rachel is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C., who covers a range of topics for Live Science, from animals and global warming to technology and human behavior. Rachel also contributes to National Geographic News, Smithsonian Magazine and Scientific American, and she is currently a senior editor at Next City, anational urban affairs magazine. She has an English degree with a journalism concentration from Adelphi University in New York.

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    FAQs

    What is special about albatrosses? ›

    With a wingspan of up to three and a half meters, the albatross is one of the largest seabirds on Earth. Albatrosses are known for their excellent flying skills, as well as for the difficulty they have with take-off and landing. They can glide for miles on end without having to flap their wings a single time.

    What is a fact about albatross bird? ›

    These feathered giants have the longest wingspan of any bird—up to 11 feet! The wandering albatross is the biggest of some two dozen different species. Albatrosses use their formidable wingspans to ride the ocean winds and sometimes to glide for hours without rest or even a flap of their wings.

    What is the largest flying bird in the world? ›

    There are 23 species of albatrosses, though arguably the most famous is the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), which is the largest flying bird in the world.

    Are great albatrosses among the largest of flying birds? ›

    Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds, and species of the genus Diomedea (great albatrosses) have the longest wingspans of any extant birds, reaching up to 3.7 m (12 ft). The albatrosses are usually regarded as falling into four genera, but disagreement exists over the number of species.

    How long can a albatross fly? ›

    Wow! But how do they eat while flying for up to 6 years?” Albatrosses, in the Diomedeidae family, are large seabirds that can have a wingspan of up to 11 feet, as documented by National Geographic here . They are known for coming ashore only to breed ( here ).

    Do albatrosses sleep while flying? ›

    According to a new study, the birds can stay aloft for weeks by power napping in ten-second bursts. A common myth once held that albatrosses could fly for years at a time, eating and drinking and mating on the wing, landing only to lay their eggs.

    What were albatross killed for? ›

    Answer and Explanation: The mariner shot the albatross because he believed that it was an unlucky omen and the source of their diminished wind.

    Does an albatross ever sleep? ›

    They spend many years at sea and sleep on the ocean rather than on land. Albatross land and sleep on the ocean for several hours at a time. Feeding from the surface of the ocean, they use the hook on the end of their beak and its sharp edges to spear and break down food.

    Do albatrosses lock their wings? ›

    Albatrosses possess a locking mechanism at the shoulder composed of a tendinous sheet that extends from origin to insertion throughout the length of the deep layer of the pectoralis muscle.

    What is the rarest flying bird? ›

    Overview: Perhaps the world's rarest bird, only one Stresemann's Bristlefront is known to survive in the wild. Unfortunately, this bird is confined to one of the most fragmented and degraded – and vulnerable – forests in the Americas.

    What is the fastest flying bird? ›

    But first, some background: The Peregrine Falcon is indisputably the fastest animal in the sky.

    What was the largest flying creature in history? ›

    Quetzalcoatlus—a member of the ancient group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs—was the largest flying creature to ever live. This giraffe-sized reptile had thin limbs, a terrifyingly long beak and a whopping 40-foot wingspan.

    What is the number 1 largest bird in the world? ›

    The tallest and heaviest living bird is the ostrich, which can grow to an impressive nine feet but, even at that size, weighs less than 300 pounds.

    What is the most impressive about albatross? ›

    Arguably what albatross are most famous for is their incredible wingspans, and the Wandering Albatross can measure a wingspan between 8 to 11 feet from tip to tip. This remarkable feat is accomplished by riding ocean winds.

    How many days can an albatross fly without landing? ›

    Around the World in 80 46 Days

    In fact, a gray-headed albatross was recorded making a complete circuit of our planet in just 46 days. A wandering albatross above the ocean.

    What bird can fly for 4 years? ›

    Albatrosses are masters of soaring flight, able to glide over vast tracts of ocean without flapping their wings. So fully have they adapted to their oceanic existence that they spend the first six or more years of their long lives (which last upwards of 50 years) without ever touching land.

    Can a bird sleep while flying? ›

    The long migration flights of many species don't allow for many chances to stop and rest. But a bird using USWS could both sleep and navigate at the same time. There is evidence that the Alpine Swift can fly non-stop for 200 days, sleeping while in flight!

    How many albatross are killed each year? ›

    No albatrosses breed in the North Atlantic. BirdLife International estimates that longlining kills around 100,000 albatrosses each year. Albatrosses cover vast distances when foraging. When breeding, wandering albatrosses range from sub-tropical to Antarctic waters on trips of up to 10,000km in 10-20 days.

    Are albatrosses smart? ›

    Airborne albatross can spot a vessel from 30km away and will consistently come in for a closer look once they do. “They're like drones, only intelligent,” said Weimerskirch.

    Are albatrosses friendly? ›

    A big, well-mannered bird of friendly, even playful disposition, with an abundant curiosity as to human presence and activities within the realm of open ocean over which he presides.

    Which bird never lands? ›

    Despite this, healthy swifts rarely come in to land and fly for very long periods of time, eating, drinking, sleeping, and even mating on the wing.

    What is the story behind albatross? ›

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge's most quoted (and misquoted) poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” tells the story of a sailor who shoots a friendly albatross, cursing himself and his crew. As punishment, he is forced to wear the bird around its neck, making the albatross a symbol of his burden and regret.

    How old is the oldest albatross? ›

    Wisdom, the world's oldest known wild bird, recently returned to Midway Atoll! The beloved Laysan albatross, or mōlī, is at least 71 years old now.

    What is the oldest bird alive today? ›

    Longevity and Conservation

    Wisdom, a 69-year-old female Laysan Albatross that currently holds the record as the oldest-known wild bird, may have produced as many as 36 chicks over the course of her life.

    What happens when an albatross mate dies? ›

    Laysan Albatross

    “If they do lose their mate, they will go through a year or two of a mourning period,” says John Klavitter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Midway Atoll. “After that, they will do a courtship dance to try to find another mate.”

    Do albatrosses mate for life? ›

    The wandering albatross is the poster bird for avian monogamy. The graceful glider is known to mate for life, partnering up with the same bird to breed, season after season, between long flights at sea.

    Which bird can fly backwards? ›

    NARRATOR: The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly in any direction. The unique architecture of its wings enables it to fly forward, backward, straight up and down, or to remain suspended in the air.

    How can an albatross fly without flapping its wings? ›

    Thanks to its high aspect ratio, albatrosses with high gliding performance fly without losing altitude by using the dynamic soaring and the rising air surface of the wind hitting the waves and hills (Richardson, 2011) .

    Is an albatross harder than a hole in one? ›

    The odds of scoring a hole in-one, or ace, is 12,000 to 1, while an albatross is six million to 1, according to golf experts. The odds of doing both in the same round are, well, almost incalculable.

    Why do albatrosses fly so far? ›

    They are the champions of a flight style called dynamic soaring. Using gravity and wind gradients, these birds carve elegant, efficient lines across some of the world's most turbulent oceans. With this method, an albatross can glide a thousand miles without once flapping its wings.

    What is the meanest flying bird? ›

    The cassowary is usually considered to be the world's most dangerous bird, at least where humans are concerned, although ostriches and emus can also be dangerous. Cassowary (Queensland, Australia).

    What's the second biggest bird? ›

    The largest extant species of bird measured by mass is the common ostrich (Struthio camelus), closely followed by the Somali ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes).

    Is there a bird that never stops flying? ›

    According to new research, Common Swifts can stay in the air for up to 10 months without stopping. Yes, 10 months. While scientists have long suspected that the bird might be capable of such a staggering achievement, they only recently had the tools to prove it.

    What is the strongest bird? ›

    The largest and strongest living bird is the North African ostrich (Struthio camelus . Males can be up to 9 feet tall and weigh 345 pounds, and when fully grown the have one of the most advanced immune systems of any animal.

    What is the slowest flying bird? ›

    Woodcocks – both American and Eurasian – hold the honor of being recognized as the world's slowest flying birds, recorded flying at the “sloth-like” pace of 8 km/h (5 mph) during courtship displays.

    What bird can fly 70 miles an hour? ›

    The fastest bird in flight, measured at a scientifically verifiable 69 miles an hour, was the Common Swift for the longest time. However, in 2016, scientists crowned the Brazilian Free-Tailed bat as the fastest flier.

    Which animal can fly highest? ›

    The bar-headed goose can reach nearly 21,120 feet, new study shows. Editor's note: An October 2012 study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that bar-headed geese follow valleys through the mountains, which keeps them below 18,000 feet nearly all of the time.

    What is the largest bird found? ›

    Up to 2.8 meters tall and 160 kg

    No contest, the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the biggest bird in the world. It's both the tallest and heaviest, with an average height of over 2 meters (sometimes as tall as 2.8 meters) and a weight of up to 160 kg.

    What is the oldest flying dinosaur? ›

    Archaeopteryx may have been the first feathered dino to go airborne on its own.

    What is the 3 largest bird? ›

    The cassowary, the 3rd largest bird in the world.

    Which bird is bigger than its brain? ›

    4. An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain. With the ostrich being the biggest bird in the world, it has an eye as big as the bee hummingbird (smallest bird in the world).

    What is an albatross saying? ›

    An annoying burden: “That old car is an albatross around my neck.” Literally, an albatross is a large sea bird. The phrase alludes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which a sailor who shoots a friendly albatross is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as punishment.

    How rare is a albatross? ›

    Albatrosses are so rare that there is no accurate record of how often they occur. But according to one estimate, the odds of making one is estimated to be about 6 million to 1.

    What does the albatross first symbolize? ›

    Historically, albatross were seen by sailors as omens of good luck, and initially the albatross symbolizes this to the sailors when it appears just as a wind picks up to move the ship.

    Is the oldest albatross still alive? ›

    At 70 years of age, Wisdom the Laysan albatross has hatched another chick. Regarded as “oldest known wild bird in history”, Wisdom has outlived previous mating partners as well as the biologist Chandler Robbins, who first banded her in 1956.

    How fast is an albatross? ›

    With a colossal wingspan of 2.2m, they can fly at speeds of up to 127km per hour and can circumnavigate the globe in just a little over a month. Although they spend most of their life at sea, the grey-headed albatross return to land to breed.

    How long can a bird fly without water? ›

    They can fly for up to eight hours straight without stopping for food or water. Scientists know how birds cope without food during the flights: They burn fat.

    What is the legend of the albatross? ›

    There are many legends about the albatross. This bird can survive alone far out on the open ocean, which few animals can do. The Maori people of New Zealand revered them as lonely wanderers, and wore their feathers out of respect. Hawaiian mythology said they could intervene and save people in their hour of need.

    What is the meaning of an albatross? ›

    1. : a large white ocean bird that has very long wings. 2. : a continuing problem that makes it difficult or impossible to do or achieve something. Fame has become an albatross that prevents her from leading a normal and happy life.

    Why is the albatross a good omen? ›

    The main belief is that the Albatross carries the souls of dead mariners. Sighting one flying overhead was considered good luck as the sailors believed that the mariner soul the Albatross carried had come to protect them from harm or bring needed winds for the ship's sails.

    What is the curse of the albatross? ›

    In the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an albatross follows a ship setting out to sea, which is considered a sign of good luck. However, the titular mariner shoots the albatross with a crossbow, an act that will curse the ship and cause it to suffer terrible mishaps.

    Why is albatross called love birds? ›

    They truly do mate for life: So-called divorce rates in albatrosses have been measured at near zero percent. Pairs stay together until one of them dies—they're the most committed lovers of any bird. Human divorce rates around the world hover near 40 percent. Like us, albatrosses take a long time to pick a partner.

    Why do they hang the albatross on his neck? ›

    In nautical lore, albatrosses are a sign of good fortune, and killing one is meant to bring bad luck. The crew of the ship forces the old seaman to wear the albatross's carcass around his neck, which is meant to serve as a reminder of his misdeed.

    Do albatross fly for 5 years? ›

    Albatrosses are masters of soaring flight, able to glide over vast tracts of ocean without flapping their wings. So fully have they adapted to their oceanic existence that they spend the first six or more years of their long lives (which last upwards of 50 years) without ever touching land.

    How long do albatross sleep? ›

    They spend many years at sea and sleep on the ocean rather than on land. Albatross land and sleep on the ocean for several hours at a time. Feeding from the surface of the ocean, they use the hook on the end of their beak and its sharp edges to spear and break down food.

    How long can albatross fly without flapping? ›

    Without even flapping their wings, Wandering Albatross can travel 500-600 miles in a single day, fly the equivalent of eighteen round trips to the moon and back in a lifetime, and maintain speeds higher than 127 km/h for more than eight hours, all, achieved through the distinct skill of dynamic soaring.

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