By Dr. Becker
When biologist Chandler Robbins first put a band on albatross Wisdom’s foot, he estimated her to be at least 5 years old. That was in 1956. Today it’s estimated that Wisdom is at least 65 years old, making her the oldest known wild bird.
But that’s not the only thing that makes Wisdom so remarkable. In February 2016, her (estimated) 40th chick, Kūkini, hatched — and Wisdom is still actively breeding with her mate, Gooo.1
Wisdom lives in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the Midway Atoll Refuge. The area is not only the largest conservation area in the U.S., but is also home to the world’s largest albatross nesting colony. About 1 million birds come to the area to nest each year.
The fact that Widsom is still thriving after more than six decades of life is encouraging, especially since many bird populations are on the decline.
Robert Peyton, Midway refuge manager, stated, “Wisdom is an iconic symbol of inspiration and hope … From a scientific perspective, albatrosses are a critical indicator species for the world’s oceans that sustain millions of human beings as well.”2
Albatrosses Have the Longest Wingspan of All Birds
Albatrosses are spectacular birds for a number of reasons. They have an average lifespan in the wild of up to 50 years along with the largest wingspan of any bird (up to 11 feet!).3 These birds are most at home over the water.
There they can glide on ocean winds for hours on end without flapping their wings, minimizing muscle use and conserving valuable energy. Albatrosses only come on land to breed and nest.
The rest of the time they soar through the skies (they can even sleep while flying, but sometimes they do take a rest on the water’s surface).
Albatrosses like to feast on sea life — squid and fish being their favorites (though they’re known to sometimes indulge in food waste or garbage thrown from ships). Most often, the birds catch prey that comes near the water’s surface, though they can also dive if necessary. Albatrosses even drink salt water.
Also of note, albatrosses mate for life. Only if one partner dies or disappears will the surviving bird search for a new mate (a process that may take years). Wisdom the albatross is thought to be on her second or third mate.4 Mating pairs produce just one egg and take turns caring for it.
Young albatrosses learn to fly around 3 to 10 months of age, depending on the species (there are about two dozen albatross species). Once aloft, it will be five to 10 years before the young birds reach sexual maturity and return to the ground to breed.
Different Types of Albatrosses
Albatross species are divided into four genera, including:5
- Great albatrosses (Diomedea)
- Mollymawks (Thalassarche)
- North Pacific albatrosses (Phoebastria)
- Sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria)
Most of these birds live in the Southern Hemisphere in Antarctica, Australia, South Africa and South America.
Three species, however, live exclusively in the North Pacific in Hawaii, Japan, California and Alaska. This includes short-tailed albatross, black-footed albatross and Laysan albatross (the species to which Wisdom belongs).
Albatrosses Are Endangered
Albatrosses are an endangered species, with some species already critically endangered. During the 19th century, large numbers of the birds were killed for their feathers and albumen in their eggs (used for film development).6 The birds were also a part of native diets in Aleut and Eskimo settlements.7
Today the birds face many threats, including on the remote islands where they breed. Invasive species, including rats and rabbits, may destroy nesting areas and prey on albatross eggs. Longline fishing is another serious threat.
This commercial fishing technique involves a main fishing line that may be up to 60 miles long that contains secondary lines branching off with potentially thousands of baited hooks.
Along with the targeted fish (typically tuna, swordfish and Chilean sea bass), the lines also pick up seabirds, sea turtles, non-target fish and marine mammals. According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 300,000 seabirds may be killed by longlines each year.8
Plastic waste is also taking a toll on seabirds, including albatrosses. Albatross skim their beaks across the top of the water when eating and thus consume many types of plastic pieces floating on the surface.
This is dangerous for both adult birds and chicks, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 5 tons of plastic are accidently picked up and fed to albatross chicks each year.9 To sum up, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF):10
“Bycatch poses the biggest threat to almost all albatross species. They dive for the fish bait used on longline fishing before it sinks into the sea, get entangled on the hook and drown.
… Albatross chicks choke on our waste. Every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean die because they choke or are poisoned by plastics and other human waste that their parents mistakenly feed to them.”
In the case of longline fishing, simple interventions could help protect the birds. For instance, hanging neon orange streamers that hang directly over fishing longlines were shown to startle birds and prevent them from trying to steal the catch (and getting hooked in the process).
The Seabird Saver is another innovative invention created by a marine biologist. It’s mounted on a boat deck and sends out a harmless green laser and noise that scares off seabirds that may otherwise get snagged in fishing lines. Taking steps to protect albatrosses and other seabirds is important, as they play an important role in their surrounding ecosystems, acting as predator and prey and also helping to fertilize the coastal environments.