Update 2/16/17: Wisdom continues her streak at age 66 by having yet another chick. See the family portrait here.
Wisdom the Laysan Albatross has some great superlatives to her name—she’s the oldest tagged bird in the wild, which may also make her the most famous. She’s also mothered 35 chicks—and this year, the 64-year-old beauty has returned to her favorite nesting grounds in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, laid her annual egg, and should be welcoming a chick any day now.
Wisdom was banded in the 1950s—along with a number of other Laysans—on Midway Atoll’s Sand Island by USGS researcher Chan Robbins. Birds are generally outfitted with tiny satellite GPS transmitters that collect real-time data, but Wisdom was outfitted with just a simple plastic axillary tag “Z333.” Since her tag is low-tech, researchers physically go out into the field to find her when she returns—which sounds much harder than it actually is, considering that Wisdom is usually spotted within 5 meters of the same spot each year. The island haven is home to the largest albatross colony in the world—this hatch year there were 600,000 nesting pairs of Layson Albatrosses and about 29,000 of Black-footed Albatrosses—so she still needs to be picked out of a crowd.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be in your 60s and look exactly like all the 18-year-olds sitting right next to you?” says Daniel Clark, the manager of the refuge.
Albatrosses in Trouble
Even with Wisdom’s impressive contributions to the colony, Laysan Albatrosses are suffering—they’re listed in danger of extinction on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. And it’s not just the Laysan: Of the 22 albatross species, 15 are threatened. These seafaring avians are likely at risk due to their ocean-dependent lifestyles—and the oceans are not doing very well.
“The success of albatrosses and the population as a whole is a real measure of the condition of our oceans,” says Clark. “Threats to the world’s oceans and nesting habitats are threats to albatrosses.”
These birds mistake ocean trash for food—about 90 percent are consuming plastic, which can be deadly—while hundreds of thousands die each year after being caught on fishing hooks, and still others are succumbing to predation and lead poisoning.
And then there’s the looming threat of climate change. The Midway Atoll refuge is one of the major two breeding sites (the other is appropriately named Laysan Island) that may be entirely submerged in the near future due to rising sea levels. When this happens, Wisdom and her albatross companions will be forced to nest elsewhere—which may be tough, as albatross are genetically predisposed to return to the same nesting grounds each year.
How to Help
It’s an uphill battle, though there is an international edict aimed directly at conserving these great migratory species (and others): The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Thirteen nations have already signed on to the 11-year-old edict that aims to help these suffering birds by conducting research, raising awareness, restoring habitats, and reducing threats. In its decade-plus of existence ACAP has already managed to convince fisheries to adopt advised methods for limiting bycatch, create an online database of breeding site management techniques, and fund more than 30 research projects on the bird.
But, the United States has yet to formally ratify the treaty—despite being a leading force against longline bycatch. Today, legislation that could implement the treaty was brought in front of Congress.
“If legislation is enacted to protect these species, we can start to determine how to safeguard them from the effects of a changing climate,” says Clark, “and how to slow that process for the benefit of not only albatrosses, but for all species, including mankind.”
Speak up for Wisdom and birds like her by encouraging your U.S. Representative to support the ACAP here.