47-Year-Old Seabird Rediscovered on Scottish Island

by Lauren Boisvert
(Image Credit: Arthur Morris/Getty Images)

Scientists in Scotland have rediscovered the oldest living fulmar on an uninhabited island in Orkney. The seabird has a numbered tag on its leg from 1975, meaning now it’s close to 47 years old. I need to know his skincare routine because this bird doesn’t look a day over 25.

The fulmar was seen on the island of Eynhallow in June 2021. At the time, it was 45 years, 9 months, and 12 days old. If seen again today, it would be 47. This bird frequently revisits the nesting site where it hatched, so it was most likely born on Eynhallow.

This bird is particularly interesting because fulmars usually only live for about 30 years. The British Trust of Ornithology confirmed that this is the oldest living fulmar. The species is considered vulnerable, though, because they live so long and are slow to reproduce. Fulmars are usually between 6 and 12 years old before they reach maturity. They are related to the albatross, are similar to gulls, and make their nests on rocky cliffsides.

Though they look similar to gulls, they are actually part of the tubenose family, which includes shearwaters and petrels. The tubes in their beaks allow them to extract salt from the water they drink and excrete it. 97 percent of the UK population of fulmars lives in Scotland, especially on the Northern Isles. The craggy coastal cliffs make the perfect nesting sites for these seabirds, and there are about 350,000 breeding pairs that nest along the UK coastline.

Oldest Seabird Found Again in Scotland, But the Fulmar is Highly Vulnerable to Avian Flu

According to a report from the British Trust of Ornithology, the fulmar is particularly vulnerable to bird flu. This summer, an outbreak of avian influenza in the UK devastated its bird populations, especially the fulmar. Seabirds in general are slow to reproduce and live extremely long. As stated above, the fulmar is usually between 6 and 12 years old before it lays its first egg. Breeding attempts at earlier ages are usually unsuccessful, and the population can take a long time to recover from diseases like bird flu. The fulmar population seems abundant in the UK, but the BTO reports a decline in numbers since the 1990s.

Ringing these birds–the act of attaching a numbered ring around their leg–allows researchers to determine how old the birds are when they’re spotted again, as in this instance. It also accounts for migratory patterns, breeding successes, and physical conditions through the years. About 900,000 birds are ringed every year in Britain and Ireland, mostly by trained volunteers.

“With avian influenza now adding to the significant, existing environmental pressures posed by changes in climate and habitat quality,” said head of the BTO’s British and Irish Ringing Scheme Dr. Dave Leech in a statement, “the dedication of these highly skilled volunteers is more important than it ever has been and we are immensely grateful for their incredible contribution.”