Oldest bird is new mom
Ann Bell, USF&WS
Here’s one new mom with lots of experience — at least 62 years of it. On February 3, a Laysan albatross named Wisdom hatched a healthy chick on a Pacific island near Hawaii. It was the sixth year in a row this bird had hatched a chick.
Even though women may live to be 100 years old or more, few are capable of giving birth after their early to mid-50s. What makes Wisdom so special is that her species normally lives only 12 to 40 years. So not only has she outlived most other Laysan albatrosses by at least two decades, but also she has remained fertile and able to hatch healthy chicks into her 60s.
How do scientists know her age? To track a wild bird, biologists often wrap a long-lasting, numbered metal band around one of its legs. Scientists can then recognize a particular bird every time its band comes into view. No one knows Wisdom’s exact age, but Chandler Robbins first banded her leg in 1956. At the time, this biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that she was already at least 5 years old. The reason: She had been incubating an egg, and females of this species must be at least 5 years old to breed. Since then, this mom has worn out five bands. Scientists replaced each just before it was ready to fall off.
Once reaching breeding age, Wisdom and her kin return each November to a tiny Pacific island to breed. A male and female will mate for life. Wisdom is so old, however, that biologists suspect she has outlived her first mate.
At breeding time, the Laysan albatross will scratch out a shallow nest in the ground. A female then lays a single egg. Both she and her mate will take turns incubating the egg until it hatches. More than seven out of every 10 Laysan albatrosses nest on just one island — Midway Atoll. That’s Wisdom’s home.
But her species spends most of its time in the air. In fact, biologists observe that after learning to fly, these birds may not set foot on land for the next three to five years.
Wisdom has done plenty more flying since she was first banded. Albatrosses are powerful gliders. With their 6-foot (nearly 2-meter) wingspan, Laysan albatrosses can angle their broad wings and ride wind currents for hundreds of miles or more. Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now estimate Wisdom has racked up an unusually large number of frequent-flier miles — between two million and three million. That’s equivalent to traveling from Earth to the moon and back — four to six times! And in the months these birds are not breeding, they stay in the air, even sleeping there.
Wild albatrosses often die long before they come close to Wisdom’s age. Some are eaten. Others starve, get sick or suffer life-threatening injuries from the gear used by fishing boats. Keeping track of such long-lived birds offers scientists an opportunity to learn much about how these animals reproduce, especially late in life. Since she was first banded, Wisdom may have reared as many as 35 chicks. Clearly, she is special and raising the bar for albatross motherhood.
Wisdom is the oldest wild bird known in the 90-year history of the U.S. and Canadian birdbanding program. Bruce Peterjohn is the chief of that program. He works at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. “To know that she can still successfully raise young at age 60-plus is astonishing,” exclaims Peterjohn.
albatross A type of large seabird with webbed feet and slender wings. Albatrosses are powerful gliders and spend most of their lives over the ocean, scooping up fish and squid from the water’s surface.
atoll A ring-shaped island formed from a coral reef that surrounds a lagoon.
breed To produce offspring through reproduction.
fertile Old enough and able to reproduce.
incubate Sitting on eggs to keep them at the right temperature until they hatch.