The world’s oldest known wild bird is a Laysan albatross named Wisdom. Since wildlife experts first banded her in 1956, Wisdom has raised as many as 35 chicks. And at the ripe old age of 68, she has laid yet another egg, according to Gizmodo’s Ryan F. Mandelbaum.
On November 29, Wisdom was spotted at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for nesting seabirds on the northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. More than three million birds, 1.2 million of which are albatross, come to the atoll every year to breed. “Every square foot of land, and much of the ground underfoot is occupied by a nesting bird,” Beth Flint, a biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a blog post. “It’s like another world.”
The USFWS has confirmed that Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, are looking after a new egg, taking turns between tending to the nest and searching for food. As is typical for the species, the couple has laid just one egg, and if all goes well, they will care for the hatchling for around five and a half months before it sets off on its own.
Wisdom and Akeakamai have been returning to Midway every year since 2006 to breed, which is somewhat unusual; according to the USFWS, albatross will often take a year off between breeding seasons to rest. Granted, Wisdom seems to be a pretty robust bird. Layson albatross are known to live several decades, with average life spans stretching from 12 to 40 years old, but Wisdom shows no signs of slowing down as she inches closer to 70.
Wisdom first came onto researchers’ radar in 1956, when a biologist named Chandler Robbins banded her during his first season studying albatross on the Midway Atoll. She was at least six years old at the time, which is why scientists believe Wisdom is now around 68, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about her back then. She was just one of hundreds of thousands of albatross breeding on Midway that year.
Forty-six years and one remarkable coincidence later, Robbins stumbled upon Wisdom once again amid a mass convergence of albatross on Midway, realizing that he had been the one who banded her many decades earlier. Robbins died last year, but biologists are continuing to keep a close eye on her and the other albatross that regularly flock to the atoll. The birds spend 90 percent of their lives in the air and at sea, making them difficult to track, but bird surveys and banding projects can help researchers gain a better understanding of albatross migratory patterns and life cycles.
“This information helps scientists make better management decisions that ensure seabirds have the habitat and resources they need in the future,” the USFWS writes in its blog post.
Managing Laysan albatross habitats has become increasingly important in recent years. The birds are classified as a “near threatened” species, with climate change and sea living rise posing a major threat to their future. Laysan albatross nest on low-lying islands, which “will likely be submerged by rising sea levels as a result of climate change in this century,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Laysan albatross are also vulnerable to predation by dogs, cats, mongoose and even invasive mice, which have been known to attack the birds while they nest.
“They haven’t really evolved with predators on land. Their only natural predators really are sharks, and those are in the ocean,” Aisha Rickli-Rahman, a biological program crew lead with the USFWS, explained earlier this year. “They have this very, very programmed behavior to stay on these eggs, because they have put all of their energy into this one egg.”
Because albatross are not prolific breeders, the success of each egg is important to the overall population. And so albatross like Wisdom, who has been raising chicks for decades, are vital to the health of the species. Last year, in fact, biologists observed a chick that Wisdom fledged in 2001 just a few feet away from her nest on Midway.
“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses,” says Kelly Goodale, a USFWS refuge biologist. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks.”