The world’s oldest known wild bird just turned 70—why she’s so special

Wisdom the albatross, who has survived tsunamis, outlived most of her mates, and raised over 40 chicks, is pushing the boundaries of what we thought birds could do.

By kim steutermann rogers
Published 27 Feb 2021, 06:22 GMT
Wisdom-oldest-bird-lead1
Photograph by Jon Brack / Friends of Midway Atoll NWR / USFWS

She could be any of a million Laysan albatross returning each Autumn to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a group of three tiny islands formed from coral reefs in the North Pacific. Here, a thousand miles north of Honolulu, scores of brilliant white seabirds dot the islands’ exposed fields, each sitting atop a single, soda can–size egg. Both males and females sport the same charcoal-smudged eyes and chocolate-brown wings, which can span six and a half feet. 

But one bird stands out: Wisdom. Sporting the red ankle band Z333, she is at least 70 this year, the oldest-known wild bird in history.

“I always have a sense of relief when Wisdom shows up,” says Jon Plissner, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who studies albatross longevity on Midway.

Scientists already know a lot about Wisdom. They know she was banded in 1956, as part of a long-term research project that has identified more than 260,000 individual albatross since the late 1930s. They know her favourite nesting spot. And they know she laid an egg late last November, like she has done at least eight out of the past 11 years, and that it hatched into a fluffy chick on February 1. 

But there’s still much about Wisdom and her species that scientists don’t know, starting with the obvious question: How long can she live?

“We really have no idea,” says Plissner. “We also don’t know if she’s the exception. She’s probably just the oldest one we know about.”

Photograph by Susan Middleton

For the past 15 years, Plissner and his team have banded Laysan albatross chicks and recorded the band numbers of nesting albatross within a 50-by-50-metre plot, data that will eventually provide more information about their life spans. The challenge, he says, is albatross are so long-lived, that they can easily outlast their researchers.

Just as Wisdom has done. Chandler Robbins, the USFWS biologist who banded her died in 2017 at age 98. (Read more about Wisdom and her chicks.)

It’s also likely Wisdom is older than 70; in 1956, she was conservatively estimated to be five years old, the earliest age that Laysan albatross can reach sexual maturity.

In 2002, Robbins returned to Midway and noticed an albatross with a ragged band that needed replacing. He soon realised two things: He’d banded the bird way back in 1956, and, at age 51, she was a record-breaker. Biologists at the time had pegged a Laysan albatross life span at 40 years.

For her many years evading the lethal hazards of being an albatross—dangerous tsunamis and sharks, to name a few—on top of newer threats posed by humans, such as warming seas due to climate change, plastic pollution, and fishing lines, she was given the name Wisdom.

Since then, Wisdom has become an internet darling, both at home and abroad. In Hawaii, Laysan albatross, known as mōlī, hold a prominent place in indigenous culture as a symbol of the god Lono, who represents rain and agriculture.

Her fame has drawn attention to the perils facing seabirds and Laysan albatross in particular, says Beth Flint, a Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist in Honolulu. (Learn about the global decline in seabirds.)

“She’s a bird with a life span comparable to a human,” Flint says. “I think her greatest contribution is the interest she stimulates in folks. She’s also drawing more people into the sciences.”

Every fall, when Laysan albatross return to Midway after months at sea to begin their next breeding season, the skies above the islands go from relatively empty to full of birds crisscrossing over turquoise lagoons, their long, slender wings outstretched.

Approximately 70 percent of the global Laysan albatross population, estimated at 1.6 million individuals, nest at Midway, a two-square-mile World War II military base turned national wildlife refuge. Biologists counted about 492,000 nests in 2020, a slight uptick from the previous year.

Each Laysan albatross pair creates a nest cup in the earth by scraping twigs, leaves, and sand in a circle approximately three feet in diameter. After the female lays a single egg, the pair shares parenting duties, taking turns foraging for days and weeks at a time to feed their chick a regurgitated slurry of fish and squid.

Photograph by Jon Brack / Friends of Midway Atoll NWR / USFWS

Chicks take their first flight to sea in midsummer, not returning to land for three to five years. Then they’ll come and go for another few years, performing elaborate courtship dances in search of a mate, with whom they’ll form a long-term bond.

Wisdom has also outlived several mates. Her personality, Plissner says, is fairly low-key, just what you’d expect of an experienced mom who’s laid upward of 40 eggs in her lifetime. (See National Geographic's pictures of animal mothers and babies.)

“She spends a lot of her time sleeping at the nest,” Plissner says. “We have to put a marker by her, because she does not stand out otherwise and fits in with the rest of the community.”

 A recent concern for Laysan albatross at Midway is invasive mice, which attack and injure adults as they incubate their eggs. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists are hoping to eradicate these mice, as they’ve done with rats, but it’s a complicated task.

Pollution is also a problem; sharp pieces of plastic, tons of which end up in the Pacific each year, can perforate a bird’s gut and kill it. (Read how nearly every seabird on Earth is eating plastic.)

But albatross have a possible biological advantage over other seabirds: Their diet is heavy in squid, which have a beak made of chitin, a substance Flint calls “nature’s plastic.” Albatross can upchuck squid beaks—and bits of plastic—into something called a bolus, or pellet.

Even so, it’s still unknown what other effects plastic might have on Laysan albatross, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as near-threatened by extinction, experts say.

And as the North Pacific warms and becomes more acidic, these changes may also affect populations of squid and other albatross prey. It’s possible squid populations will decline or shift regions, which could impact the birds’ food supply, Flint says.

To better manage the threats and conserve the species for the long-term, scientists need more data on Laysan albatross and their behaviours.

The seabirds are easy to study when they’re on land—they’re big, nest on the ground, and don’t hide. But they’re most at home at sea, far from the probing eyes of researchers.

That’s where new technology comes in. Biologists are now using a variety of satellite-equipped tags that attach either to the backs of the birds’ feathers or to the bands around their ankles, providing specific data about where the birds are flying.

Such tags have revealed that breeding Laysan albatross forage way beyond the Hawaiian Islands, sometimes as far north as Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, says Rob Suryan, a marine ecologist studying seabirds at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau.

“What makes Wisdom a remarkable role model for seabird conservation is learning how far she flies to get food for her chick,” Suryan says. (Follow the epic journey of migratory birds.)

Some tags even include accelerometers, which can track flight mechanics—wing flaps, flight speed, and duration, he says. Such data has revealed, among other things, how the birds are able to efficiently soar over the ocean for such long periods of time.

Another big unknown is what happens to an albatross chick once it flies the nest, Suryan says. Does it come back to the same colony as its parents, for instance?

Such data could give “an interesting window into the lives of these birds that have always intrigued me,” he says.

Suryan isn’t the only one captivated by albatross—people from more than 190 countries tuned into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AlbatrossCam on Kauai, which was active between 2014 and 2018.

“Wisdom expands the horizon of our imagination about what is possible in the natural world, and there’s plenty more to discover,” says Charles Eldermire, project leader for the Cornell lab's bird cams. “And that gives [us] more room to hope.”

As an international sensation, Wisdom is also the perfect candidate for her own webcam. Alas, Plissner says the internet at Midway is horribly slow. The next best thing would be a motion-activated camera that can be programmed to take a still picture or a short video every 15 minutes or so.

“That keeps coming up,” Plissner says. “I think we’ll be talking about it next year.” All the more reason to cheer on Wisdom’s continued longevity.

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