A Monumental Matriarch

The remarkable journey of an Albatross called Wisdom

Good news is soaring across the world’s headlines today. Wisdom, the albatross, and her mate, Akeakami, just hatched another chick.

This is amazing for so many reasons. Wisdom is around 70 years old, which makes her the oldest-known wild bird. Over her life, she’s raised more than 30 hatchlings and in the process has become, as one researcher so eloquently stated, “a world-renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive.”

Fluffballs of Feathers are no easy task

It’s hard work raising an albatross chick. It takes many months, and a lot of squid, crustaceans, and flying fish. Because it’s such an exhaustion, albatross couples are very close. They spend years courting, even showing off their moves in “dance parties.” Then once they’re sure they’ve found the one, they mate for life.

Akeakami — which is the Hawaiian word for lover of wisdom — is not actually Wisdom’s first love. Because of her longevity, she’s outlived at least one other. But she and Akeakami have been deeply intertwined since at least 2010, and maybe more like 2006. While most couples take a year off between parenting sessions, these two lay an egg almost every year. In 2011 they even survived a tsunami together.

Another reason Wisdom is remarkable is her perseverance. She nests on the remote Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. It’s easy to imagine this refuge as a pristine, lonesome hideaway, but the sad truth is that hundreds of tons of plastic wash ashore here every decade. The birds mistake it for food. They feed it to their chicks. For many, a belly full of plastic leaves too little room for nutrients. Add in to that, a high rate of deaths from longline and other fishing operations, and it’s easy to see why Wisdom and her new chick are such beacons of hope.

“The odds are stacked against them so much, whenever it happens it’s always a cause for celebration,” Sean Dooley, of BirdLIfe Australia, told the Guardian.

A Life Aloft

Every year Wisdom flies thousands of miles over open oceans. Her wings are more than six feet across, and she is so masterful at soaring, she barely ever flaps them. She has probably flown more than 3 million miles, far enough to go to the moon and back six times.

Imagine what she’s seen. Sunrises sparkling yellow on the horizon. Stars, unhindered by the glow of a light bulb, for so many thousands of miles. The force of a gray squall of rain beaten sideways by the wind. Tall rolling seas giving way to iceberg mosaics. Clear waters interrupted by the breach of a great whale, whose silhouette slowly descends into the blue.

When Wisdom was born, plastics weren’t yet a thing. There were 5 billion fewer people in the world, and three times as many fish. Sooty, lumbering cargo ships would have been a seldom sight. Longliners — whose crews set out 28-mile-long ropes, studded with thousands of hooks, decorated with bait that is all too tempting to birds — were only vaguely being explored. Even the very composition of the atmosphere, and feeling of the sky was different.

So when biologist Chandler Robbins first banded her leg on Midway Atoll in 1956, he couldn’t have known about the dangers she’d have to navigate during her life. But the young researcher did always hope that they’d meet again. Perhaps if they did, she could help him understand more about Laysan albatrosses, and how to better protect them.

Though Wisdom did come back to the island year after year, Robbins’ research had taken him elsewhere. It wasn’t until 2002 that he finally returned to find her again. It must have been quite a sight for the researcher, who had now devoted his entire life to birds and their protection. After all, as far as we know, Laysan albatrosses usually only live 40 years, and by 2002 Wisdom would have been well into her 50s.

Robbins himself lived to an outstanding age of 98, pursuing his love of birds long after his official retirement. He died in March, 2017, not long after the then 66-year old Wisdom successfully hatched another chick.

I’ll send out more of the week’s nature news, along with news from the homefront in a day or two. Hope everyone is enjoing a beautiful March. Keep up the good, and as always, feel free to share, subscribe, and let me know your thoughts.

And for more Wisdom photos, and albatross courship dances, check out the USFWS Flicker page.


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