Issue 17.6: December 2014 / January 2015

The Ancient Mariner

Written By: Noel Nicholas
Photo By: Daniel W. Clark 

In the bird world, Wisdom is a superstar. She’s been the subject of a children’s book, news articles, TV segments, fan art and, as her Facebook page proves, she’s beloved by her followers, who post comments like, “What a fine world this is that has you in it!” and “It was so fun meeting you. … You’re gorgeous!” The reason? The 63-year-old Laysan albatross is the oldest known bird living in the wild. To many she’s a hero, a survivor, a beacon of hope.

Since the US Geological Survey began using leg bands to track seabirds in the 1950s, the data hasn’t been very positive: Of twenty-one known albatross species, nineteen are on the verge of extinction. Long-line fishing attracts and drowns large numbers of the birds, and the USGS estimates that each year adult birds unknowingly feed some five tons of plastic debris to their chicks. But Wisdom has managed to survive wars, tsunamis, hurricanes and, as her name implies, she’s learned enough over the years to keep herself—and her chicks—out of trouble.

Wisdom was first banded on Midway Atoll in 1956 by Chandler Robbins of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. She was estimated to be around five years old at the time. Miraculously, Robbins crossed paths with Wisdom again more than fifty years later, re-banding her himself, this time with a bright red band to distinguish her from the flock. Despite her years, Wisdom still looks like any other adult albatross. Dan Clark, manager for Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge where Wisdom nests, sees her often—always within fifteen feet of her previous nest. “She is still indistinguishable from other albatross on nests around her,” he says. “That’s one special, youthful bird.”

Beyond simply outliving her peers, Wisdom has logged over 3.2 million miles of flight, and she’s still reproducing: The USGS estimates that she’s hatched thirty to thirty-five chicks in her lifetime, the most recent in February 2014. “Wisdom is a symbol of inspiration and hope for all seabird species,” says Clark. Maybe that’s why refuge staff chose to name her 2013 chick Mana‘olana: Hawaiian for “hope.”