Albatrosses aren’t the world’s largest birds, or the oldest — parrots in captivity have lived to age 80, Peterjohn said. But they are easily the largest seabird, with wingspans as wide as eight feet, “like a sea gull on steroids,” Peterjohn said, dwarfing the average gray gulls that are known to roam beaches stealing french fries.
They’re the oldest known bird in the wild. Wisdom edged out the second oldest known albatross to reproduce, a 61-year-old named Grandma, of the Northern Royal species, Peterjohn said. But Grandma hasn’t been seen at her nesting ground at Taiaroa Head, New Zealand, in three years and is presumed dead.
Albatrosses mate for life, suggesting that Wisdom probably had to find a new, younger mate maybe twice down the line. They work at a relationship, first by getting their groove on. “They dance together,” said Chandler Robbins, a retired senior scientist at USGS.
The birds face each other — eye to eye, beak to beak — and do a two-step, up and down, stretching their long wings wide and craning their necks.
Robbins is part of the twist in Wisdom’s story that makes it even more remarkable. He was in his 40s when he clasped that first aluminum band around Wisdom’s ankle in 1956.
Still working at age 81, he returned to the atoll in 2001 and, amid the thousands of albatrosses that nest there, picked up a bird with a tag that traced all the way back to one with a signature he recognized — his own.
That’s when scientists got excited and gave Wisdom her name, estimating her age at 49. But she could be several years older.
The tangled record-keeping that frustrates scientists has kept Robbins going at age 94.
“I’m trying to straighten out the record,” he said. “It takes a lot.”