The oldest known bird to lay an egg and raise a chick landed over Thanksgiving weekend at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific Ocean, apparently to do it again, at age 64.
Her name is Wisdom, but it should probably be Ancient Wisdom, because she apparently knows things that scientists don't. "It continues to just blow our minds," said Bruce G. Peterjohn, chief of the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Services Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.
Here's why Wisdom's accomplishments are mind-boggling, and why she's a celebrity among bird scientists and bird watchers.
First, albatrosses are expected to live a little more than half as long as Wisdom. They are certainly not expected to lay eggs and raise chicks at an age when most Americans are starting to collect Social Security payments.
The oldest albatross other than Wisdom to lay an egg was Grandma of the Northern Royal species at age 61. Grandma hasn’t been seen at her nesting ground at Taiaroa Head, New Zealand, in five years and is presumed dead.
On top of all that, albatrosses face threats from pollution that kill them each year by the hundreds. Parents are known to frequently feed human-produced 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.
Wisdom has soared above these problems, taking new mates as old ones succumb to age or a death more grisly. "We’re learning what these birds are capable of doing at what we consider to be an advanced age," Peterjohn said. "She lays her eggs and raises her chicks. Common sense says at some point she would become too old for this."
Her backstory is incredible. Wisdom has raised chicks six times since 2006, and as many as 35 in her life, according to the USGS. Since the day she was first tagged in 1956 at Midway Atoll, the end of the Hawaiian Island chain, she has likely flown up to 3 million miles. Do the math, the USGS said. That’s “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.”
“It is very humbling to think that she has been visiting Midway for at least 64 years," Deputy Refuge Manager Bret Wolfe noted when Wisdom laid an egg last year. "Navy sailors and their families likely walked by her not knowing she could possibly be rearing a chick over 50 years later. She represents a connection to Midway’s past as well as embodying our hope for the future.”
As if laying eggs and raising chicks when many Americans are starting to collect Social Security payments isn't enough, there's another twist to Wisdom's story.
The man who first held her and placed a band over her webbed foot was Chandler Robbins, then in his 40s. Still working at the atoll nearly 40 years later, he picked up a bird among the quarter million that nest there and found a signature on its tag that he recognized — his own. He was 81.
Now 97, Robbins continues to work as a volunteer, appearing at the lab in Laurel about three times a week, Peterjohn said.
Because of her celebrity status -- bird watchers "keep an eye out for her and know when she comes back" -- a single metal band that all albatrosses get isn't good enough for Wisdom. She's banded with a second plastic tag that's easier to spot so she'll stand out in the crowd.
Get a good look, Peterjohn said. As with premium athletes, the great ones are rare and must one day exit the stage. "She’s the only one to live this long and avoid avoid all the problems that confront [an] albatross," he said. "Something could happen and they could find her dead on Midway. Some day she’s going to fly off the island some spring and never come back."