There are skeptics out there who don’t believe this is true, who think it can’t be true, that something here is wrong. Maybe, somehow, the band that identifies the Laysan albatross is wrong, they say. Maybe it was somehow switched to another bird.
Even true believers shake their heads. “Common sense says at some point she would become too old for this,” said Bruce G. Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Services Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.
A scientist named Chandler Robbins clasped an aluminum band around the ankle of a random female albatross at the Pacific Ocean atoll in 1956, when he was 41. Forty-plus years later, still working for the USGS, Robbins returned to the atoll and picked up a bird amid the thousands nesting there with a tag that traced back to a signature he recognized — his own.
It was then, at the turn of a new century, that scientists gave Wisdom her name. They estimated her age at 49 but admitted she could be several years older. Wisdom has broken news every year since, each time she returned to the atoll with an old partner — albatrosses mate until death do they part — and a new egg.
Her most recent chick, Kūkini, was laid in November 2015 and hatched in February. Kūkini grew strong on freshly regurgitated squid and fish.
Wisdom has gained celebrity status as easily the world’s oldest living albatross. A second plastic band was clasped to her to make her easier for birdwatchers to spot. A Northern Royal albatross dubbed Grandma was the oldest until she disappeared from her nesting ground at Taiaroa Head, New Zealand, seven years ago and is presumed dead.
Albatrosses such as Wisdom are lucky to make it off the atoll at the end of the Hawaiian island chain, let alone return. Parents are known to frequently feed human-discarded plastics to chicks by mistake, blocking their wind pipes and filling their little bellies with deadly junk.
Nineteen of 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction, and their demise might be linked directly to humans. Out in the world where they fly, albatrosses face threats from pollution that kill them each year by the hundreds.
But not Wisdom.
She’s probably flown up to 3 million miles since she was first tagged, according to scientists who have tracked her at the USGS. In 2013, they calculated that distance as “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.”
Laysan albatross chicks take about three months to hatch. Expect Wisdom to make news again in late February or March.