Photograph courtesy Pete Leary, USFWS
Published February 21, 2013
Wisdom, the oldest known wild bird, has yet another feather in her cap—a new chick.
The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis)—62 years old at least—recently hatched a healthy baby in the U.S. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, her sixth in a row and possibly the 35th of her lifetime, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) North American Bird Banding Program. (Related: "51-Year-Old Albatross Breaks N. American Age Record .")
But Wisdom's longevity would be unknown if it weren't for a longtime bird-banding project founded by USGS research wildlife biologist Chandler Robbins.
Now 94, Robbins was the first scientist to band Wisdom in 1956, who at the time was "just another nesting bird," he said. Over the next ten years, Robbins banded tens of thousands of black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) and Laysan albatrosses as part of a project to study the behavior of the large seabirds, which at the time were colliding with U.S. Navy aircraft.
Robbins didn't return to the tiny Pacific island—now part of the U.S. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—until 2002, when he "recaptured as many birds as I could in hopes that some of them would be the old-timers."
Indeed, Robbins did recapture Wisdom—but he didn't know it until he got back to his office at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, and checked her band number in the database.
"That was real exciting, because we didn't think the chances of finding one that old would be that good," Robbins said Wednesday in an interview from his office at the Patuxent center, where he still works.
Photograph by David H. Wells, Corbis
Albatrosses No Bird Brains
Bigger birds such as the albatross generally live longer than smaller ones: The oldest bird in the Guinness Book of Animal Records, a Siberian white crane (Leucogeranus leucogeranus), lived an unconfirmed 82 years. Captive parrots are known to live into their 80s. (See National Geographic's bird pictures.)
The Laysan albatross spends most of the year at sea, nesting on the Midway Atoll (map) in the colder months. Birds start nesting around five years of age, which is how scientists knew that Wisdom was at least five years old in 1956.
Because albatrosses defend their nests, banding them doesn't require a net or a trap as in the case of other bird species, Robbins said—but they're far from tame.
"They've got a long, sharp bill and long, sharp claws—they could do a job on you if you're not careful how to handle them," said Robbins, who estimates he's banded a hundred thousand birds.
For instance, "when you're not looking, the black-footed albatross will sneak up from behind and bite you in the seat of the pants."
But Robbins has a fondness for albatrosses, and Wisdom in particular, especially considering the new dangers that these birds face.
Navy planes are no longer a problem—albatross nesting dunes were moved farther from the runway—but the birds can ingest floating bits of plastic that now inundate parts of the Pacific, get hooked in longlines meant for fish, and be poisoned by lead paint that's still on some of Midway Atoll's buildings. (Also see "Birds in 'Big Trouble' Due to Drugs, Fishing, More.")
That Wisdom survived so many years avoiding all those hazards and is still raising young is quite extraordinary, Robbins said.
"Those birds have a tremendous amount of knowledge in their little skulls."
Wisdom's accomplishments have caught the attention of other scientists, in particular Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, who said by email that Wisdom is a "symbol of hope for the ocean." (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
Earle visited Wisdom at her nest in January 2012, where she "appeared serenely indifferent to our presence," Earle wrote in the fall 2012 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
"I marveled at the perils she had survived during six decades, including the first ten or so years before she found a lifetime mate. She learned to fly and navigate over thousands of miles to secure enough small fish and squid to sustain herself, and every other year or so, find her way back to the tiny island and small patch of grass where a voraciously hungry chick waited for special delivery meals."
Indeed, Wisdom has logged an estimated two to three million miles since 1956—or four to six trips from Earth to the moon and back, according to the USGS. (Related: "Albatross's Effortless Flight Decoded—May Influence Future Planes.")
Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program, called Wisdom's story "simply incredible."
"If she were human, she would be eligible for Medicare in a couple years—yet she is still regularly raising young and annually circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean," he said in a statement.
As for Robbins, he said he'd "love to get out to Midway again." But in the meantime, he's busy going through thousands of bird records in an effort to trace their life histories.
There's much more to learn: For instance, no one has ever succeeded in putting a radio transmitter on an albatross to follow it throughout its entire life-span, Robbins noted.
"It would be [an] exciting project for someone to undertake, but I'm 94 years old," he said, chuckling. "It wouldn't do much for me to start a project at my age."
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
Mazes are a powerful tool for neuroscientists trying to figure out the brain and help us learn to grapple with the unexpected.