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Laysan Albatross, Wisdom, beloved across the world, returns to Midway Atoll

Wisdom, the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, is seen in 2018 with her chick at Midway Atoll. Credit: USFWS Pacific Region.

MIDWAY ATOLL, Hawaii (KHON2) — Wisdom, a Laysan albatross (mōlī) and the world’s oldest known, banded wild bird has returned to Midway Atoll.

Scientists say that Wisdom was first observed at her nest on Nov. 29. She was confirmed to have laid an egg, something that doesn’t necessarily happen every year, and she and her mate, Akeakamai, are taking turns incubating the egg.   

Each year millions of albatrosses return to Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to nest and raise their young. Wisdom and Akeakamai, like most pairs of albatrosses, return nearly every year to the same nest site and have met on Midway Atoll to lay and hatch an egg almost every year since 2006. Wisdom has laid between 30-36 eggs in her lifetime, scientists estimate Wisdom to be at least 69 years old.

In 2017, the chick that Wisdom fledged in 2001 was observed just a few feet away from her current nest, marking the first time a returning chick of hers has been documented.

“Every year that Wisdom returns, she is rewriting what we know about albatross longevity – and inspiring the next generation,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monument Superintendent Jared Underwood. “Wisdom helps us better understand how long these birds live and how often they breed. This knowledge informs our management actions to ensure a future for albatrosses that rely on the Refuge and Monument.” 

Wisdom sitting on her nest in 2011 (on the left) compared with this 2020 photo (on the right) after scientists confirmed that she had laid another egg at over an estimated 70 years old

Raising the next generation of albatross is no easy job. Albatross parents take turns incubating the egg or caring for the chick while the other forages for food at sea. They will spend approximately seven months on Midway Atoll incubating and raising their chick. Because this process takes up so much time and energy, most mōlī don’t lay an egg every year. 

Starting around age five, juvenile albatrosses begin the process of finding a mate. During nesting season, they are all over Midway Atoll practicing elaborate courtship dances containing dozens of ritualized movements. These young birds are looking for that special bird to dip, bow, and preen with, and once a pair bond forms they stay bonded for life. 

“Albatrosses lay one egg at a time and often take a year off between laying eggs, so the contribution of just one bird makes a difference,” said acting Midway Atoll Refuge Manager Keely Lopez. “It’s wonderful to think how much Wisdom, and other albatrosses like her, has contributed to the survival of her species.” 

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