For the Birds Radio Program: Oldest Wild Bird: Wisdom the Albatross 2011
During and after World War II, Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean served as a critical military airbase for the United States. But seabirds and propeller-driven aircraft were colliding more than 300 times every year, so in the 1950s, when jets were about to be introduced to the island, the Navy asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help find a solution. The first step was to study exactly how the birds were using the island, in a project headed by Chandler Robbins. Insights from this research led to fairly simple changes in the runway design and managing nearby dunes, vastly reducing the problem.
One nesting Laysan Albatross that Robbins banded during his first season in 1956 returned again and again to nest on the island. Laysan Albatrosses don’t start to nest until they’re at least 5 years old; most don’t begin breeding until they’re 8 or 9. So it was big news in February 2011 when this bird was spotted again, raising yet another chick. She’s at least 60 years old, and quite possibly older. Five times over the decades, when her leg band became worn out, it has been replaced with a new band, but albatrosses are sturdier than metal. They fly an estimated 50,000 miles every year, so the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that she has flown at least 2 or 3 million miles since being banded—that’s comparable to somewhere between 4 and 6 trips to the moon and back. Researchers nicknamed her “Wisdom,” and the news of this bird, the oldest wild bird ever known in the northern hemisphere, made international headlines.
People with pet parrots instantly started posting comments on news stories saying that parrots live longer. But pets get veterinary care when they’re sick, and are protected from the elements, predators, and other dangers. Bruce Peterjohn of the US Geological Survey said, “Comparing longevity of wild vs. captive birds is not really valid. With regards to banded parrots in the wild, relatively few have been banded so we know very little about the normal life spans of parrots in the wild. But to date, the longevity of wild parrots does not match the proven longevity of the albatross.”
The tsunami following the March 10 earthquake hit the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge hard. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reported that at least a thousand adult and adolescent Laysan Albatross, tens of thousands of albatross chicks, and thousands of other seabirds were killed when waves smashed into the atoll for hours. They estimate that thousands of Bonin Petrels were buried alive in their nesting burrows. But “Wisdom” and her chick were further inland, and both survived.
When I was in fifth grade, there were two things I loved: birds and numbers. My birthday fell on November 11, and one day I noticed that on 11/11/11, I would turn 60. I couldn’t imagine being that old—it seemed quite ancient, almost as old as my grandpa was—but somehow the date made it seem auspicious. Now that I’m almost 50 years older than that little 10-year-old girl, 60 doesn’t seem quite so ancient, but I must admit that it seems much, much nicer now that I know that there’s a wild bird out there who’s older than me. I hope Wisdom returns to Midway for many years to come.