Monday Reads: Wisdom’s Ageless Inspiration

The (at least) 62-year-old mother keeps calm and carries on.

Wisdom preens her chick on March 7, 2013.
Wisdom preens her chick on March 7, 2013. (J. Klavitter / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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Over the years, many a leg has flitted from one fashion trend to the next, from flaring bell bottoms to form-fitting skinny jeans. But for the past six decades, one mother has stuck to just one style of leg-wear: a bird band. And it’s helped to tell an incredible story.

When the Laysan albatross known affectionately as “Wisdom” returned to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge last winter, she gracefully flew right into the record books. Banded by a scientist on his first trip to Midway in 1956 as she was tending to her egg, Wisdom is at least 62 years old and far beyond what’s thought to be the average 12–40 year lifespan for a Laysan. In fact, Wisdom is the oldest documented living wild bird today.

And she’s not taking her golden years lying down: in February, she, once again, became the proud mother of a new chick. This 8-pound bird has been flying the Pacific and raising young for longer than many of the scientists observing her have been alive.

In her six decades, Wisdom has not only raised an estimated 30–35 chicks, she’s logged at least two million miles in flight (enough for four trips to the moon and back) and charmed younger males in the elaborate courtship dance albatrosses are famed for. (Watch a video of the dance below.) In 2011, Wisdom (and her chick from that year) survived the Tōhoku Tsunami which killed more than 130,000 of Midway Atoll’s albatrosses—but, she’s survived much, much more than that.

Seabirds, from albatrosses to shearwaters, must navigate through a growing array of human-induced threats—from the deadly baited hooks of longlines to habitat degradation. Earthjustice is working to protect these important—and imperiled—members of the marine ecosystem, both in the waters where they spend most of their lives and on the land they depend on to nest, from the balmy Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi to the thriving wetlands of the western Arctic’s Teshekpuk Lake region.

Earthjustice’s legal work to strengthen the health and resilience the oceans and the life it supports stretches from restoring the building blocks of the ocean food web—tiny forage fish such as menhaden and sardines—to stemming the tide of pollution caused by stormwater and agricultural runoff. In a recent lawsuit, our Mid-Pacific regional office is fighting to end the devastating losses of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses from Hawaiʻi’s longline swordfish fishery; it is just the latest in our long-running fight to prevent longliners from emptying the ocean ecosystem of false killer whales, sea turtles—and seabirds.

And the biologist who banded Wisdom on that first trip to Midway? He has had his own six decades, no less incredible, spent in service to migratory bird conservation at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Known as the Father of Modern Ornithology (and to many here at Earthjustice as a long-time, generous supporter of our organization), Chandler S. Robbins’s groundbreaking contributions have covered working into the effects of forest fragmentation on migratory bird populations and of DDT on bird populations that influenced Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

In his nineties today—and still birding, banding and teaching—Dr. Robbins succinctly captured the wonder we feel for this unassuming albatross, marveling that while he has “grown old and gray and get around only with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as on the day I banded her.”

Wisdom seems to have some words to share with her new chick. In the photo on the right (taken on February 24, when the chick was about three weeks old), the chick proudly displays the two temporary bird bands Midway’s staff have applied. USFWS Wildlife Biologist Pete Leary explained that the chick is wearing a second band as a precaution; Wisdom’s chick from last year kicked off its band—and unfortunately can no longer be identified amongst the sea of albatrosses.

Video: The Courtship Dance

Laysan albatross are famous for their elaborate courtship rituals, including this highly choreographed (and strangely mesmerizing) dance with 25 different movements. It takes much of a year, and lots of hard work, for a mated pair to raise a chick—so each wants to be certain that the other is serious about the partnership!

Shirley undertakes sous chef duties on Earthjustice’s website, serving up interactive online features for our advocacy campaign and litigation work.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.