Albatross Mom 'Wisdom' Tsunami Survivor

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ALBATROSS UPDATE: Wisdom alive and well after tsunami!

Winging in with a spot of good news, Wisdom, the oldest known North American bird in history, has survived the tsunami that washed over the Midway Atoll on Friday. She is among the fortunate few of her flock however as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that thousands of sea birds died in the tsunami wave that crossed the Pacific following Japan’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and own catastrophic tsunami.

No news yet about her chick.

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Not many moms in their 60s can boast of raising 30 offspring while having a new one in the nest. But such is the claim of the aptly named Wisdom, a Laysan albatross nesting in the South Pacific that is also the oldest known wild bird in the 90-year history of North American bird banding.

John Klavitter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified Wisdom with a new chick during a survey of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge where he is deputy manager. This is Wisdom’s fourth year in a row of nesting, demonstrating her superior parenting skills. Many albatross take a year off in between their parenting duties. Wisdom’s last vacation from motherhood was in 2007.

  Albatross mate for life and brood only one egg a year, spending another year at least raising the chick until it is fully fledged. For 3 to 5 years the young albatross will then excursion out to sea feeding on fish and squid, never touching land, and even taking naps in mid-flight. When they return to their breeding grounds the mating ritual can take several years, which is why Wisdom is expected to be in her mid-sixties and now a mother of what’s likely a whole flock: Biologist Chandler Robbins of the U.S. Geological Survey first found Wisdom incubating an egg in 1956. Wisdom’s partner has remained a mystery.

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“She looks great,” said Bruce Peterjohn, chief of the North American Bird Banding Program in a USGS news release.

“And she is now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program,” Peterjohn said. “To know that she can still successfully raise young at age 60-plus, that is beyond words.”

Maybe it’s her diet of fish that keeps Wisdom looking good, or maybe it’s the exercise she gets. Albatross fly an average of 50,000 miles a year as they travel from breeding grounds near Hawaii to fishing grounds off the western coast of North American.

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That means Wisdom has flown between 2 and 3 millions miles in her life. But after all that time and travel, how do scientists know Wisdom is indeed the same bird? Fashions for humans come and go, but haute couture for albatrosses have stayed pretty much the same. Wisdom has had her leg band exchanged for a similar one only five times since 1956.

“While the process of banding a bird has not changed greatly during the past century, the information provided by birds marked with a simple numbered metal band has transformed our knowledge of birds,” said Pertejohn.

Her original discoverer, Robbins, found Wisdom again in 2001. Robbins and Wisdom may have a long history together, but the history of albatross and humans is far older.

Sailors thought the birds were the souls of lost sailors and shouldn’t be killed. Hence the punishment of the sailor in Samuel Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

The albatross-killer was sentenced to wear the dead bird around his neck because his shipmates thought his sacrilege had stopped the winds and left them stuck in the middle of the ocean with, “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

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Modern humans are killing albatross as well, though not with crossbows as Coleridge’s sailor did. There are several modern weapon of choice that threaten 19 of the 21 species of albatross with extinction, from long-line fishing to introduced species. But one of the most pervasive killers is plastic debris. Adult albatross are mistaking small bits of plastic in the ocean for food and regurgitating the plastic as a meal for their chicks.

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Seeing Wisdom live to celebrate 60 and still nesting healthy chicks shows that despite all the environmental pressures on her, Wisdom is living up to her name.

IMAGE 1: The Laysan albatross named Wisdom, a mother again at 60 years old. (COURTESY: USGS)

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