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Oh, Mama! World's 'Oldest' Bird Has Another Chick

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 6:12 pm

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pete Leary is proud to announce that Wisdom the Laysan albatross, who at age 62 (or so) is the "oldest known wild bird" in the world, has hatched another chick.

Wisdom's latest offspring "was observed pecking its way into the world" on Sunday at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific Ocean, the agency says.

Some Two-Way readers may remember our post from March 2011, when Fish & Wildlife Service officials were relieved to report that Wisdom had survived the tsunami that roared east from Japan that month and sent a 5-foot tidal wave crashing into the wildlife refuge where she spends part of the year.

Now, we're glad to pass on the word that Wisdom is apparently still doing fine and still up to the demands of motherhood even though she's well beyond the 12-to-40 year average life span of a Laysan albatross.

Wisdom was first tagged by researchers in 1956, when she was already at least 5 years old. According to the Fish & Wildlife Service, she has worn out five bird bands since then. It's thought that she has "raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life" and is known to have "nested ... every year since 2008."

The service offers this rather amazing estimate: Wisdom has flown an estimated 50,000 miles a year as an adult and:

"At least two million to three million miles since she was first banded. Or, to put it another way, that's four to six trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again, with plenty of miles to spare."

According to Reuters:

"Laysan albatross breed on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, at Kaena Point, and on Kauai, at Kilauea Point. Their feeding grounds are off the west coast of North America, including the Gulf of Alaska, and they spend their first three to five years constantly flying, never touching land. Scientists believe they even sleep while flying over the ocean."

All Things Considered is planning to have more about Wisdom later today. We'll add the audio of that conversation to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

More albatross news: "Albatross That Hitchhiked To L.A. Is Freed To Fly Home To Hawaii."

Update at 2:45 p.m. ET. How Do They Find Her?

Along with being monogamous, albatrosses return to the same spot each year to mate and nest, says John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist and deputy manager at the Midway refuge. So, as he told NPR's Robert Siegel this afternoon, it hasn't been hard to watch for her each year when the birds return in the fall.

Asked about whether it's likely Wisdom's mate has been the same male all these years, Klavitter said it's possible — but he doesn't have a band so the researchers don't know just how old he is. And, Klavitter added, it's unlikely her first mate has survived this long.

Wisdom's survival, Klavitter said, is amazing. She has to have "overcome so many obstacles" over the years, from predators to the tsunami to the daily hazards from pollution, boats and other threats.

Update at 2:30 p.m. ET. How Many Mates?

Some commenters have wondered about these birds' mating habits. According to the Fish & Wildlife Service and other sources, albatrosses do mate for life. But given Wisdom's age, as The Washington Post notes, she "probably had to find a new, younger mate maybe twice down the line.

The Post also tracked down the scientist who first banded Wisdom in 1956. Chandler Robbins, a retired senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is now 94. It was on a return trip to the atoll in 2001 when he "picked up a bird with a tag that traced all the way back to one with a signature he recognized — his own. That's when scientists got excited and gave Wisdom her name."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's a fresh observation from the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, near Hawaii. Old bird, new chick. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross, has lived more than twice as long as an average member of her species. She's thought to be 62 years old. And among birds that have been identified and banded, she's thought to be the oldest living free-flying bird. So she's a baby boomer and in more ways than one. On Sunday, Wisdom shocked scientists by hatching a healthy chick.

They thought she was way too old for such nonsense. And joining me now to talk about Wisdom's surprising fecundity is John Klavitter who is one of the biologists who's been monitoring Wisdom at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Hi.

JOHN KLAVITTER: Aloha. Good to be here.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: And first, let me ask you: How do we know that Wisdom is 62? How do we know she's not lying about her age?

KLAVITTER: Well, she's actually at least 62 years old, and she was banded in 1956, so it's by banding records.

SIEGEL: And what do you think is the secret to her longevity?

KLAVITTER: I think that over the years, she's definitely learned to avoid predators out in the ocean, and she's learned to forage very efficiently and also maybe avoid plastic these days and potentially fishing vessels.

SIEGEL: Does a 62-year-old female albatross have trouble finding a mate at that advanced age?

KLAVITTER: Well, typically, these birds pick a mate. They stay together for life, unless one of the mates disappears, and so it could be that Wisdom might have the original mate. It's probably unlikely, and so maybe she's had two mates during her time, but usually, they'll nest in the same spot. That really helps biologists to track them.

SIEGEL: Now a bit about the chick. First of all, are we sure that this is her chick? Did she just happen to find an egg and, you know, hatch it?

KLAVITTER: We're pretty certain. We've been tracking her ever since we located her in 2006, and so we were very excited to see that she arrived again this year with her mate. And they did a courtship dance, and they built a nest together. And we watched and watched. And sure enough, she did lay the eggs, so we're certain it's hers.

SIEGEL: Do you know whether this chick has many siblings?

KLAVITTER: We do know that the chick does have siblings. Since 2006, Wisdom has been able to fledge four of her chicks, four to five, so that's pretty darn good.

SIEGEL: Some many of us were introduced to the albatross by "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and think of it as figuratively as the thing that hangs around your neck. Tell us something wonderful about albatrosses that you've learned from watching them.

KLAVITTER: Well, they are pretty amazing and interesting. And their wingspan is six feet across, so they are large birds, but they're not pretty heavy. They only weigh about seven pounds or so. When they take care of their chicks, the male and female both take turns feeding it, and they'll forage about 1,000 miles from Midway to find food, mainly squid. And they'll take about three to four days to go 1,000 miles. They'll pick up squid, and they'll fly back here. So the parents take turns for five to six months doing that, so it's amazing they'll log tens of thousands of miles finding food for their chick in a single breeding season.

SIEGEL: A thousand miles, I've got to fly out to find some squid. I'll see you in three days.

(LAUGHTER)

KLAVITTER: Yeah. And it could be about a week, but it is amazing how far they go and the dedication that they have to find squid and bring it back for their chicks.

SIEGEL: Well, John Klavitter, thank you very much for talking with us.

KLAVITTER: Well, it's been my pleasure. Aloha. And have a fantastic day.

SIEGEL: Okay. Mr. Klavitter is deputy wildlife refuge manager at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and we've been talking about the very unconventional Wisdom, an albatross who hatched a chick at age 62. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.