Wild birds rarely make international news unless they are oiled, sucked into jet engines, or have fallen from the sky. So it was great to see the story of Wisdom, the 60-year-old Laysan Albatross, appear in the international press last week.
In addition to being the oldest known wild bird, she is a new mother. Wisdom was banded on Midway Island in 1956 by USGS biologist Chandler Robbins, who rediscovered her in 2001. At the time of her banding she was at least five years old and incubating an egg. Her island and ocean world has changed dramatically since 1956, making it all the more incredible that she has prevailed and continues to contribute to her species at age 60. She has flown an estimated 2-3 million miles in her lifetime, equal to 4-6 trips to the moon and back. (Both she and her chick have survived the tsunami which killed many other individuals.) (Photo courtesy USGS)
Laysan Albatross are one of 22 species of albatross worldwide. Only three – the Laysan, Black-footed and rare Short-tailed albatrosses – breed in the northern hemisphere. All albatrosses are endangered, many critically. All face the same array of threats, including incidental capture in global long line fisheries, reductions in prey due to fisheries competition, invasive species and habitat destruction on breeding islands, ingestion of plastics, and effects of pollutants. Additionally, Laysan Albatrosses nesting on Midway are heavily impacted by lead contamination originating from lead-based paint peeling from old buildings.
Despite these slings and arrows, this one individual has survived and sufficiently thrived to be caring for a chick at age 60 (with her mate). This provides quite a bit of inspiration to those fighting to protect albatrosses, such as Dr. Myra Finkelstein of U.C. Santa Cruz , who showed how removing lead-based paint and contaminated soils from Midway Atoll NWR will significantly enhance the species’ long-term prospects.
Audubon California is working with Dr. Finkelstein and groups such as the American Bird Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity to advance policies that will help Laysan Albatrosses and their 21 cousins. These include urging the U.S. Department of Interior to clean up the worst lead-contaminated areas on Midway, and securing U.S. adoption of the Agreement to Conserve Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
To learn more about how Laysan Albatrosses live, pick up a copy of “The Eye of the Albatross” by Carl Safina.