How Old Is the World’s Oldest Wild Bird?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, is at least 68 years old — the world’s oldest known wild bird
  • It’s believed that Wisdom has raised up to 36 chicks, and she just laid another egg in 2018
  • Wisdom was first banded at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 1956 by the late biologist Chandler Robbins; she was believed to be an adult, around 5 years old, at the time
  • It’s difficult to track albatross, in part because they spend up to 90 percent of their lives at sea, floating among the waves and feasting on fish eggs and squid
  • It’s possible that other older birds exist, as the early bands used to tag the birds were made of aluminum, which would easily become corroded by the elements, causing the bands to fall off

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, just laid an egg at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a nesting site for more than 3 million birds located on the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago. This in itself isn’t remarkable, until you learn that Wisdom is at least 68 years old — the world’s oldest known wild bird.

Every year, most albatrosses return to the place where they’re born to nest and mate. Wisdom was first banded at Midway Atoll in 1956 by the late biologist Chandler Robbins. She was believed to be an adult, around 5 years old, at the time.

“[In 1956,] Midway Island was a strategic outpost for the U.S. Navy and Wisdom was banded at her nest next to one of the barracks,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Pacific Region reported. “ … Wisdom wasn’t particularly special, she wasn’t even Wisdom. She was just one of the hundreds of thousands of [birds] returning to Midway and one of 8,400 albatross that were banded that year.”1

Wisdom and Her Mate Have Returned Every Year Since 2006

In a chance encounter in 2002, Robbins again came across Wisdom the albatross during a bird survey, noticing that she was one of the original birds he had banded. While Laysan albatrosses are known to live up to 40 years in the wild, they clearly can live much longer.

How common it is for albatrosses to reach their six, seventh (or later) decade of life is unknown, in part because they spend up to 90 percent of their lives at sea, floating among the waves and feasting on fish eggs and squid. Not only are the birds difficult to follow once they leave the shore, but the early bands used to tag the birds were made of aluminum, which would easily become corroded by the elements.

As a result, the bands often fell off within 20 years, which means many of the oldest birds may have lost their bands. In Wisdom’s case, her bands were replaced repeatedly over the years. USFWS noted:2

Wisdom’s bands, fortunately, were continuously replaced and because of meticulous record keeping associated with bird banding on Midway, biologists were able to confirm that she is the same bird first banded by Robbins. Biologists may find even older birds as old worn bands continue to be routinely replaced.”

Wisdom is also unusual in that she and her mate, Akeakamai, have been returning to Midway every year since 2006. Laysan albatrosses are monogamous and bonded for life, engaging in elaborate courtship and mating dances. If one mate dies, the survivor will often seek out a new mate.

Only one egg is laid each year, and the pair spends about seven months incubating and raising the resulting chick. It’s a labor of love, one that takes up considerable time and energy. As such, most albatrosses don’t lay an egg every year.

Wisdom, however, has laid eggs in a number of consecutive years without taking a break. It’s believed that she’s raised up to 36 chicks, some of which surely return to Midway Atoll.3 In fact, in 2017, one of Wisdom’s chicks, raised in 2001, was documented back at Midway, just a few feet from Wisdom.

“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses,” said Kelly Goodale, USFWS refuge biologist said in a news release. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”4

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Albatross Nesting Site ‘Like Another World’

Laysan albatross are known for their graceful ability to soar over the ocean, traveling hundreds of miles a day. They can even stay in flight during strong storms and, as The Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out, “To a large extent, the faster the wind blows the more maneuverable they are.”5

Wisdom’s long life may be attributed, in part, to having a safe nesting site to return to. Midway Atoll is part of the protected Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, and is also incidentally the site of the Battle of Midway that took place during WWII. About 70 percent of Laysan albatross, along with 40 percent of black-footed albatross and some short-tailed albatross, an endangered species, nest at Midway Atoll.

“Midway during nesting season is an overwhelming experience,” said USFWS wildlife biologist Beth Flint. “You are bombarded by the sounds and smells of 1.2 million albatross and over [3] million seabirds. Every square foot of land, and much of the ground underfoot is occupied by a nesting bird. Itʻs like another world.”6

For Laysan albatross, a near threatened species, Wisdom is an iconic symbol of hope and perseverance. The population is believed to be stable,7 but they do face threats unique to seabirds, including longline fishing, predatory invasive mice and plastic marine debris.

It’s estimated that albatross chicks may accidently be fed 5 tons of plastic waste every year as the birds feed on plastic debris that floats on the water’s surface.8 Fortunately, Wisdom appears to be going strong and, with any luck, will return to Midway Atoll again next year.