At 70, Wisdom the albatross, the oldest known living wild bird, has returned to Midway Atoll to breed again!

December 16, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was SO happy when Matthew sent me this tweet early this morning! Wisdom has come back to Midway to breed again. At 70, she is the oldest wild bird known to exist, and the bird who has been banded the longest!

I’ve written about Wisdom before: she’s the Honey of seabirds, but much older (wild mallards typically live 8-10 years if they fledge). She keeps coming back to Midway every year to breed, and many have grown to love her for her tenacity. I’m not sure why I’m so happy about her return, but I have the same feeling when Honey comes back to Botany Pond in the Spring.

There’s a long article about Wisdom on Wikipedia, and I’ll give a few quotes. First, though, note that she is a Laysan albatross and Wikipedia gives some information about the species:

The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) is a large seabird that ranges across the North Pacific. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to 99.7% of the population. This small (for its family) gull-like albatross is the second-most common seabird in the Hawaiian Islands, with an estimated population of 2.5 million birds, and is currently expanding (or possibly re-expanding) its range to new islands. The Laysan albatross was first described as Diomedea immutabilis by Lionel Walter Rothschild, in 1893, on the basis of a specimen from Laysan Island.

The range from the Cornell site:

(From Cornell site): Laysan Albatrosses leave their breeding grounds from July to October to forage across the northern Pacific Ocean; they tend to go northwest toward Japan and Alaska—one reason they are seen off the West Coast less commonly than Black-footed Albatrosses.

I think that Midway Atoll, shown in the map below, counts as a Northwestern Hawaiian island:

A photo of Wisdom with her chick (they almost always have just one) in 2011 when she was 60:

And I’ll reproduce everything about Wisdom from the Wikipedia site. She may be older than I am! Emphases are mine:

Wisdom (Z333) is a wild female Laysan albatross. She is the oldest confirmed wild bird in the world as well as the oldest banded bird in the world

Wisdom hatched around 1951, and possibly earlier. In 1956, she was tagged by scientists as #Z333 at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. It is likely that Wisdom is older than 70, as when she was banded in 1956, she was conservatively estimated to be five years old — the earliest age that the Laysan albatross reaches sexual maturity. The person to attach the first tag was Chandler Robbins, who was a senior scientist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Birds are banded so that their populations can be monitored and individuals can be studied for data such as their longevity, behavior and migration patterns.

On December 3 2014, Wisdom made headlines when she laid an egg at Midway Atoll. Her mate had arrived at the atoll on November 19, and Wisdom was first spotted by the refuge staff on November 22. The egg was estimated to be the 36th egg that Wisdom had laid; albatrosses lay one egg per year, and have monogamous mates for life.  Smithsonian speculated that due to Wisdom’s unusual longevity, she may have had to find another mate in order to continue breeding.

The USGS has tracked Wisdom since she was first tagged, and have estimated that Wisdom has flown over 3,000,000 miles (4,800,000 km) since 1956 (approximately 120 times the circumference of the Earth). To accommodate her longevity, the USGS has replaced her tag a total of six times She and her chick survived the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 2,000 adult Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, and a much larger number of chicks, at the refuge.

Wisdom has laid some 30–40 eggs in her lifetime. Between 2005 and 2014, Wisdom laid eight eggs, and hatched and reared another chick in December 2016 at the approximate age of 66. In December 2017, she bred again, and has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006. In December 2018, USFWS Pacific Region reported that Wisdom had returned to the Midway Atoll and had laid an egg.The egg hatched in February 2019.

In December 2020, it was reported that Wisdom was again incubating an egg. The chick hatched on 1 February 2021 at age of 70, biologists has also estimated that she has at least 30–36 chicks.

And here’s her chick from February of this year (note the band), which reads Z333 in both cases.

A bit more from Wikipedia on Wisdom’s “impact”:

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has stated, “Wisdom’s continued contribution to the fragile albatross population is remarkable and important. Her health and dedication have led to the birth of other healthy offspring which will help recover albatross populations on Laysan and other islands.”

Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program, stated that Wisdom “[Was] now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of [the] USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program. To know that she can still successfully raise young at age 60-plus, that is beyond words.” [JAC: Indeed!]

Wisdom has received coverage from many major news sources in the United States and elsewhere, including The GuardianNational Geographic,  Discovery News, and 60 Minutes. In January 2020, Wisdom was featured in episode 3, “Hawaii”, of BBC Two’s Earth’s Tropical Islands.

One of Wisdom’s chicks

Now you may be wondering how such an old bird can keep producing eggs. But in fact, there are only five species of animal whose females undergo menopause: humans and four marine mammals—beluga whales, narwhals, killer whales, and short finned-pilot whales. (“Menopause” means that females simply stop reproducing at a roughly predictable age but can live on for an appreciable time after that.)

So we are alone with these whales as the only animals whose females stop reproducing before they die. Even other primates lack menopause in females! This means that we evolved menopause independently of not just other primates, but of the whales. Further, the Nature article linked above suggests that, in the phylogeny of whales, menopause also evolved independently several times.

As to why we have menopause and chimps don’t, or why beluga whales have menopause and sperm whales don’t, I have no idea. I’ll try to find some answers, but they’ll surely be speculative.

Wisdom feeding her chick

33 thoughts on “At 70, Wisdom the albatross, the oldest known living wild bird, has returned to Midway Atoll to breed again!

  1. Heart lifting story about the amazing albatross Wisdom and a teeny bit of biology to go with it. Nice start to the morning along sigh my coffee. Thank you.

    1. From a geologist, there is a discontinuous series of seamounts, atolls and submerged islands from Hawaii to the Midway group, in an approximately straight line. “Approximately” because it’s long enough that great circle versus little circle routes matter.
      A little NW of Midway, the line’s orientation turns 20-or so degrees from WNW to NW, which was an event about 80 million years ago. I forget whether the line continues into a trench, and which trench.
      This chain is the classical example of a “hot spot trace”, though not all geologists are solidly convinced that “hot spots” are a thing. A fixed locus of volcanic activity for approaching 100 million years, unmoving relative to a postulated “solid earth” is a problematic point. Literally, what on Earth could be that reference frame for immobility.
      Jerry said :

      I think that Midway Atoll, shown in the map below, counts as a Northwestern Hawaiian island:

      And this is fully vindicated, geologically.

      1. Thanks, I am illuminated this morning as I read this comment!

        I served aboard a patrol boat in the chain. Eventually I got to Kiribati and Palmyra. Those “outcroppings” scattered throughout the ocean are definitely a different world.

  2. Do you (they) think that Wisdom out lives her mates? Why should she. Or is it that a mate has not been banded and therefore cannot be appropriately aged.

    1. No, they know Wisdom’s mate and presumably he is banded, but he didn’t show. I recommend reading the link below the tweet for more information. It says this:

      Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, like most pairs of albatrosses, return nearly every year to the same nest site — a behavior known as nest site fidelity. Albatrosses lay one egg each nesting season and often take a year off from nesting. Most Laysan albatrosses return to Midway Atoll’s during November when mating begins; and most eggs are laid by early December. After about 65 days of incubation, eggs hatch in late January or early February.

      “There have been no observations of Akeakamai this year and no evidence of a nest cup; so it is unlikely that they will nest this year,” said Jon Plissner, Wildlife Biologist at Midway Atoll. “We will continue to monitor the area through the month of December, as a few new nest starts of Laysan albatross can occur in December.”

  3. I’ve read that it’s possibly because older females of social species are more likely to preserve their genes by taking care of their grandchildren rather than by reproducing themselves. While it sounds plausible I am not sure how the hypothesis deals with the fact that it’s such a rare occurrence.

      1. But young humans take twenty years to become independent, and I suspect that time is considerably less for chimps. So less to lose if an elderly female chimp dies with young stiil dependent on her, and thus less pressure to evolve a menopause.
        Now if chimps had pensions and healthcare, their lifespans might be long enough that we would see menopause evolve!

    1. Do albatrosses (albatri?) exhibit any care beyond their own chicks? I’m not sure they do – there are cases on record of a chick not being recognised as a “chick” because it had fallen out of the nest – though I’m not sure that this was in this species.
      “Granny Albatrice (?)” approaching “Jane Q Albatrice” ‘s nest is more likely to be doing so with “fast food” intent than intent providing grandpaternal care.
      I’m sure the rings would tell. But “fluffy chix” are an easier sell for publicity than “cannibal granny”.

      Was Tolkein a bird ringer? I’d laugh if he had been.

  4. A story for the ages. Wisdom is nearly my age and maybe is 71. Good thing she is not older. There was a lot of disturbance on Midway during the 40s.

    1. Had I lusted after breeding yearly till my present 80, maybe I would have had to go (on nordic skis?) 5 million km. too—not being serious of course. Clearly this is a much more astounding fact for a female. One doesn’t make much mileage while sitting on an egg.

      That distance averages to about 200 km per day. Pretty hard to find a downhill that long to make it easier. And snow all year round or else 400/day half the year. That bird should be made a Hero of Species Preservation.

      The energy needed to go those distances is surely provided much more by skill-plus-wind than by the fish eaten.

      1. “…fish eaten”
        No, sorry, wiki says that “…black-footed albatross takes mostly fish, while the Laysan feeds on squid.”

  5. What a lovely story! I’m at my parents’ place tonight and like me, they’re animal lovers. I showed them this article and it genuinely made their week – my mum was so touched, she was almost in tears. They’re easy to please – there’s not much going on in Yorkshire at this time of year! Anyway, they send their appreciations, thanks!

  6. Maybe it’s a spandrel. Menopause can be pretty brutal if you join any FB group where women are supporting one another through it. It’s a physical nightmare full of fatigue and forgetfulness to name just some of the symptoms so it could be conceivable that we have menopause because we wear out our breeding (limited supply of eggs) and once that goes down to hell with us. We just happen to have had other parts of our genetic makeup that allowed us to linger.

  7. I just wanted to comment that (believe it or not) at 70, Wisdom is still probably not the oldest bird on the planet. Scarlet macaws regularly live to the ripe old age of 50, and even in captivity African Greys and other parrots regularly outlive their owners into their eight decades. Still, it’s great to know that birds like Wisdom are still going strong even in light of magnetic pole shifts, changes in wind patterns, and habitat destruction.

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