Oldest known wild bird in U.S. became a mother again, and survived March 2011 tsunami

In early March 2011, wildlife biologists reported that a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom, at the Midway Atoll in the South Pacific, had broken another record. Already the oldest known wild bird in the US (more than 60 years old), she was spotted the previous month caring for a chick! Based on what’s generally known about the Laysan albatross, it’s possible that Wisdom, at such a great age, may have had as many as 35 chicks and logged about 2 to 3 million air miles during her lifetime.

Unfortunately, the 2011 tsunami hit Midway Atoll just before midnight on March 10th, destroying a significant portion of the Laysan and black-footed albatross colonies. Wisdom and her chick survived because her nesting spot was not affected by the surge of seawater, but she caused some anxiety when she was not seen for several days. Fortunately, she appeared on March 20th to feed her chick!

Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, commented in a press release on a photo of Wisdom taken in February 2011:

She looks great. And she is now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program. To know that she can still successfully raise young at age 60-plus, that is beyond words. While the process of banding a bird has not changed greatly during the past century, the information provided by birds marked with a simple numbered metal band has transformed our knowledge of birds.

Scientists know that Wisdom is at least 60 years old because she is part of a study conducted by the North American Bird Banding Program, where birds are temporary captured for study and fitted with a leg band bearing a unique ID. A typical bird banding begins with the bird being carefully caught so as to avoid injury. During the “processing” the bird is handled as briefly as possible to minimize stress. Data about its location, body measurements, weight, health, and feather molt are recorded, then a small band with a unique number and contact information for the banding center is attached to one leg and the bird is released unharmed. If a banded bird is re-captured later, updated information is added to its existing record. Cumulative data about banded birds enables scientists to learn about approximate lifespan, behaviors, and migratory patterns of different species, as well as health trends that could be tied to disease, toxins, and habitat loss. During the collaboration between the US Department of the Interior and the Canadian Wildlife Service (begun in 1920), nearly 65 million birds have been banded. Almost 4.5 million birds with bands have been recovered.

Wisdom was first banded in 1956 by a young ornithologist named Chandler Robbins. He estimated her age to be at least 5 years, the earliest known breeding age for a Laysan albatross. Robbins, now an internationally-recognized ornithologist, found her again in 2001. She had since been observed nesting at the Midway Atoll in 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010. When told of the news regarding Wisdom and her chick seen in February 2011, Chandler was quite excited!

With a wingspan of over six feet, the Laysan albatross is master of the air, able to glide for long periods of time without flapping its wings. They often stay aloft using winds above the ocean surface – a technique called dynamic soaring. Some scientists even think they’re able to sleep while flying. A non-breeding adult albatross can travel about 50,000 miles a year. Wisdom, at her venerable age, may have logged as much as two to three million miles in her lifetime. While the Laysan albatross breeds on the northwestern islands of the Hawaiian chain, some feed a significant distance away, in the Pacific waters off western North America. Parents with young chicks feed in waters closer to the nests, but the birds will wander much farther away while a mate is incubating the egg or if the chicks are older.

Albatrosses mate for life, which would naturally lead us to wonder how long Wisdom’s mate has been with her. No one knows. After a courtship that can last several years, albatrosses begin breeding around 8 to 9 years of age. The earliest known breeding age, however, is 5 years, which is what Chandler Robbins adopted as the minimum possible age for Wisdom when she was first banded in 1956. She could very well be older than 60.

A female albatross lays just one egg each year. It takes both parents about a year to incubate the egg and care for the chick until it is ready to fledge. Adults feed mostly on squid, but also take flying fish eggs, fish, carrion, and garbage from ships. Parents convert some of their food, like fish eggs and squid oil, into a rich oily liquid that is regurgitated to feed the chick. At the Midway Islands, there’s a 66% fledging success rate. After the chick has fledged, the parents may take a year off, spending the time at sea, before returning to land to breed again. Bruce Peterjohn thinks that Wisdom, at an age of at least 60 years, may have raised 30 to 35 chicks – perhaps towards the higher side of that range, since experienced parents tend to have a higher fledging success rate.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 19 out of 21 albatross species are threatened by extinction. At Midway, lead poisoning from lead paint flaking away from old buildings causes neurological development problems in chicks that eat the paint flakes. Adult birds are sometimes drowned in longline fishing activities, but those numbers have begun to decrease as conservation groups and fishermen have been working together to decrease the danger to birds. Garbage in the ocean, particularly plastics, are often mistaken for food and eaten by albatrosses. By some estimates, about 5 tons of plastic are inadvertently fed to chicks by their parents. The plastic itself does not kill the chick immediately, but reduces the amount of food that the chick can take in, leading to lowered chances for survival. At some islands, introduced species such as cats and rats prey on albatross chicks. Having evolved on islands free of such predators, the chicks have no defenses against them.

A Laysan albatross at least 60 years old, with chick, is quite extraordinary. Somehow, Wisdom has beat the odds, considering all the perils these birds face in the wild. She may have had as many as 35 chicks during her lifetime, and flown two to three million miles over her range in the north Pacific ocean. We know her story because of the North American Bird Banding Program at the Midway Atoll, where she was first banded in 1956 by Chandler Robbins.

On March 10th, 2011, a tsunami, created by the same 9.0 magnitude earthquake that brought devastation to northeast Japan, wreaked havoc on the Midway Atoll Islands, which are about 2,400 miles from the earthquake epicenter. Although Wisdom’s nesting area was not affected by the tsunami, she caused quite a bit of concern when she was not seen for several days following the event. But she appeared on March 20th to feed her chick, much to the relief of all her fans.

A photo of Wisdom tending her chick taken on March 20th, 2011. They survived the tsunami. Photo credit: Pete Leary/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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March 21, 2011

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