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Wisdom, The Laysan Albatross

Phoebastria immutabilis

 Wisdom, the oldest known banded bird in the wild, is a female Laysan albatross that nests within the world's largest albatross colony on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. She is at least 65-years old and a world renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive. 

 Conservation History:  Mōlī, Hawaiian for Laysan albatross means Hawaiian tattooing implement (their bones were excellent tattoo implements), graced every island in the Hawaiian archipelago nesting by the millions for thousands of years. However, non-native mammals such as pigs, rabbits, cats and dogs that were brought to the islands did not evolve with these magnificent ground-nesting seabirds.  Furthermore, albatross were easy to approach because of their instinct to stay on the nest at all cost, making them vulnerable to prey by non-native predators and humans.

By the turn of the century albatross were slaughtered by the thousands and feathers were sold at high cost to adorn ladies hats in Europe; albumen from eggs was used the film development industry.  As a consequence millions of albatross were killed and the ones that survived were under constant pressure by non-native mammals and human impacts.  Even in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, seabirds were slaughtered and “heaped in piles” on Midway noted a Smithsonian Expedition report in the late 1800’s.  This report motivated Theodore Roosevelt to designate the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as one of the first federally protected seabird reserves in the country in 1909 in an attempt to stop the wanton destruction of seabirds, particularly albatrosses. Today we celebrate a conservation milestone that has protected albatross for the past century upon the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty on August 16, 1916. This act was the first cornerstone of North American efforts that protect birds (such as Wisdom) that migrate across international borders.

This treaty also connects the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with indigenous people who are honoring the spirit and symbolic role of birds in ancient history.  Permission was granted by way of the Act to allow the collection of albatross feathers from deceased birds on Midway Atoll.  “Native Hawaiians considered mōlī as the most spiritually significance, or mana,” noted Hawaiian kāhili maker, Shad Kane. “The mōlī is a high-flying bird, so those feathers were more important because (the birds) fly higher in the sky and were closer to the gods,” explained Gerry Miyamoto of Nā Kiamanu and former regent with the Daughters of Hawai’i.  Kāhili made from albatross feathers now grace  Queen Emma’s throne in Hawai’i.   

The story of a Laysan albatross named Wisdom, began to unfold in 2002 when a miraculously-timed sighting of a band number on an albatross was documented by bird biologist Chandler Robbins. Due to the U.S. bird banding program rigors and meticulous tracking process, the number was traceable to a bird banded on Midway, December 10, 1956.  But wait, the story gets better.  The data sheet indicated Chandler Robbins (40 years-old at the time) gave Wisdom her first band in 1956.  When Robbins returned to Midway in 2002 he had indeed re-sighted the same bird he wrapped his arms around 46 years earlier to attach a band.

Fast forward to five years later in 2006 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) staff emailed Robbins to inquire about an approximate location of the bird Robbins banded.  Albatross have strong nest site fidelity instincts.  When they reach breeding age they return to their home turf to find a mate and nest on the same remote island where they were reared as a chick and later become fixated on their own waterfront nest site location.  Robbins relayed the information to Midway Atoll that the bird was nesting in area behind the old Navy Bravo Barracks. Shortly afterward, the bird was sighted by FWS volunteers.  Later that day, Refuge Biologist John Klavitter returned to the site and removed the metal band that Robbins had given her in 2002 to make room for the new red Z333 band so biologists could easily monitor her over time.  

Inspired by New Zealand’s “Grandma” who at time was the oldest known albatross in the world. Klavitter appropriately named Midway’s oldest albatross, Wisdom, realizing that this ancient and magnificent albatross required a name that would honor her, Klavitter appropriately added the name in the 2006 report.

In 1956 Midway Atoll was a bustling U.S. Naval Air Station supporting thousands of military personnel their families and contractors.  Today Midway Atoll is a National Wildlife Refuge within the largest marine conservation area in the U.S., Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  And where can you find Robbins today?  At the age of ninety-seven Chandler Robbins is working as an emeritus researcher at the U.S.Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland doing what he loves to do. 


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Facts About Wisdom, The Laysan Albatross

Laysan albatross are surface feeders and feed primarily at night. They feed on anything that floats on the surface of the water; squid, fish, crustaceans and flying fish eggs. Unfortunately, this includes marine debris as well; with an estimated 5 tons of plastic that was mistaken for floating fish eggs or squid being fed to chicks each year. 
Life Span
12-64 (until there was Wisdom it was 40)
Length: 79-81 cm (31.6-32.4 in); wingspan: 195-203 cm (6.4-6.7 ft) 
Last Updated: Sep 13, 2016
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