National Wildlife Refuge System

Albatross Named Wisdom Survives Tsunami

Credit: USFWS

The oldest known wild bird in the United States is a new mother and now a tsunami survivor. A Laysan albatross appropriately named Wisdom was spotted a few weeks ago with a chick on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Because Wisdom had nested on higher ground, she and her chick survived when the tsunami swept over Eastern Island and part of Sand Island.  Refuge biologist Pete Leary tells that story in his personal blog, complete with many photos. The short-tailed albatross chick hatched earlier this year also survived, but hundreds of birds did not. Leary added, "Although we lost a lot of wildlife, all of the people who are here because of the wildlife are safe."

Wisdom was first banded by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Chandler Robbins in 1956 as she incubated an egg. Chandler found her again in 2001 and Midway Atoll deputy manager John Klavitter spotted her this year.

"Wisdom looks great," said Bruce Peterjohn, the chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. "And she is now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program," he added.

Wisdom has likely raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life, though the number may well be higher because experienced parents tend to be better parents than younger breeders. Albatross lay only one egg a year, but it takes much of a year to incubate and raise the chick.

Almost as amazing as being a parent at 60 is the number of miles this bird has likely logged – about 50,000 miles a year as an adult – which means that Wisdom has flown at least two to three million miles since she was first banded. In the non-breeding part of the year, albatross do not touch land – scientists believe the birds often even sleep while flying over the ocean.

Albatross breed in the northwestern Hawaiian Island chain but some of their feeding grounds are actually off the coast of western North America, including the Gulf of Alaska. The parents tend to feed closer to the islands where their nests are when the chicks are very young, but they regularly commute to the northern Pacific Ocean and even the Gulf of Alaska when the chicks are older or when the adults are incubating.  They convert the fish eggs and squid oil they eat into a rich, oily liquid, which they regurgitate and feed to their chick.

The Importance of Bird Banding

Peterjohn noted that Wisdom’s remarkable record is just one example of the valuable data provided by bird banding. In addition to establishing longevity records for birds, banding data from the North American Bird Banding Program documents migratory patterns, provides critical harvest and survival information used to manage populations of migratory game birds, and supports research activities on many issues from toxicology to disease transmission and behavior.

Since 1920, approximately 64.5 million birds have been banded by this Interior Department-Canadian Wildlife Service program, and of those, nearly 4.5 million bands have been recovered.


Laysan albatross in flight
Laysan albatross in flight
Credit: Michael Lusk, USFWS

More About Albatross

Albatross are legendary birds for many reasons – in Samuel Coleridge’s poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a sailor has to wear an albatross around his neck as punishment for killing the bird. According to seafaring legends, albatross are the souls of lost sailors and should not be killed. However, as reported by James Cook, sailors did regularly kill and cook albatross.

Albatross are remarkable fliers who travel thousands of miles on wind currents without ever flapping their wings. They do this by angling their six-foot wings to adjust for wind currents and varying air speeds above the water.

Nineteen of 21 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Present threats to the birds include lead poisoning of chicks on Midway from lead paint used in previous decades; long-line fishing, where the birds are inadvertently hooked and drowned, though conservation groups have banded with fishermen and dramatically lowered the number of deaths from this cause; and pollution, especially from garbage floating on the ocean.

The birds ingest large amounts of marine debris – by some estimates five tons of plastic are unknowingly fed to albatross chicks each year by their parents. Although the plastic may not kill the chicks directly, it reduces their food intake, which leads to dehydration and most likely lessens their chance of survival.

In addition, albatross are threatened by invasive species such as rats and wild cats, which prey on chicks, nesting adults and eggs. Albatross evolved on islands where land mammals were absent, so have no defenses against them.


Volunteers counting albatross nests
Volunteers counting albatross nests
Credit: Roy Lowe
Last updated: March 15, 2011