Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

She's Back!!!

Wisdom in 2022. Photo by Keegan Rankin/USFWS

In December 1956, in a study to protect nesting albatrosses on Midway Island, Chandler Robbins caught and banded a great many Laysan Albatrosses. Seabirds in general are exceptionally long-lived, so in 2011, when Robbins returned to Midway to band albatrosses again, he wondered if it were possible that any of the birds he handled that year were ones he and his colleagues had banded during that long-ago albatross study. An aluminum band cannot possibly be readable after 55 years on an oceanic bird’s leg, but when scientists re-capture already-banded birds, they replace worn and weathered bands with new ones, carefully recording both the old and new numbers on the new banding card. In the years before computerized banding records, scientists seldom rifled through the vast body of banding records to see when a replaced band had originally been placed on a bird. And tracing the records backward was even more time consuming when the previous band was itself a replacement. But Robbins was curious enough to do the work, and the band on one of his 2011 birds traced all the way back to 1956, when he himself put the original band on a nesting female.   

The very youngest a female Laysan Albatross can be to attract a mate and start nesting is 5 years old, setting Robbins' bird's minimum age in early 2011 at 60 years old. That extraordinary discovery made international news, and suddenly everyone was calling the bird “Wisdom.” I was especially thrilled because 2011 was the year I would turn 60—here was the only still-living wild bird known to have hatched before I was born.   

Albatrosses spend the entire year out at sea, coming to land only to nest, but with all the hubbub, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paid special attention to Wisdom, putting a colored plastic band on her leg as well as the aluminum one to make her more recognizable as an individual, and ever since, searching for her every November when albatrosses return to Midway to nest.   

Wisdom laid an egg in November 2020, when she was at least 69, but it didn’t hatch, and she didn't lay one last year. All kinds of things cause eggs to not hatch, including accidents, predators such as mice and rats, poor diet when the female is ovulating, exposure to toxins, and defective ovum or sperm, often due to environmental factors. When an egg does hatch, the chick doesn’t always survive, again due to all kinds of factors. Indeed, albatross chick survival rates have declined as more and more plastic garbage in the world’s oceans accumulates even as nutritious prey species decline. The last time Wisdom successfully raised a chick to fledging was in 2017.   

Since 2011, I’ve paid close attention to USF&W press releases every November. With the pandemic, they haven’t been able to keep us up to date as promptly as they used to. This year I got a heads up on December 5 from my friend Scott Wolff, who used to do work on Midway Island and keeps in touch with some of his friends there. That's how I found out that Wisdom had returned three days before the official notice went out. She was spotted and photographed on Thanksgiving, November 24, 2022. Her mate, Akeakamai, didn’t return to Midway last year and hasn’t been seen this year, so he is presumed dead. Attracting and sealing the deal with a new mate takes time.    

Last year, the chick that Wisdom fledged in 2011 produced Wisdom's first known grandchick, but it didn’t survive to fledge. Of course, not one of her chicks hatched before 2011 would have been traced as her offspring—there may well be a dozen or more children of Wisdom alive today along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren too, but without an albatross version of a 23andMe-type ancestry program, we'll never know.  

As of December 13, Wisdom has only been seen and photographed that one day this season. Without a mate, she had no reason to secure and defend a nest territory, and so she apparently returned to the sea. It’s getting late this year to start a nest, but if she were to find a mate at this late date, she and he might return to check out real estate options for next year. Staff at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial will continue to look for her.   

It seems like amazing luck for one marked bird to still be around so many decades after hatching, but I wonder how lucky she feels encountering so much plastic trash and unpredictably unseasonable weather conditions on her long searches for increasingly scarce food. Thinking about her, I wonder if I've squandered my 71 years here. I've tried my best but will be leaving the planet ever so much poorer than how I found it. My generation started out so idealistically looking for ways to save the environment but now is as implicated as every other generation in the pollution-fueled insect apocalypse, accelerating climate change, increasingly toxic oceans, and so much more. Wisdom's longevity is an improbable triumph against growing environmental degradation. I hope we humans roll up our sleeves and get to work to ensure that our children and grandchildren can survive and thrive on this planet we all share as long as Wisdom has. 

Wisdom in 2022. Photo by Keegan Rankin/USFWS