World’s oldest recognized wild fowl hatches chick

The world’s oldest known wild bird is a parent once again. Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan Albatross), had returned to her nesting site on Midway Atoll in November, along with her mate Akeakamai. Wisdom soon laid an egg, and in late January it began to hatch. The chick emerged on Monday, February 1.

Wisdom is approximately 70 years old. She was banded as an adult in 1956, when she was at least five years old. The late ornithologist Chandler Robbins attached her first band. Not only have countless news articles been written about Wisdom, but she also has her own Wikipedia page.

Wisdom (right) and her mate Akeakamai (left) seen in 2015 taking turns incubating and sheltering their egg. Male and female Laysan Albatross couples take approximately 48-hour shifts caring for their egg. Both share the responsibility of feeding and rearing their chick after it hatches. Photo by Dan Clark/USFWS

Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30–36 chicks in her lifetime. In 2018, biologists observed the chick that she fledged in 2011 just a few feet away from her current nest. Countless generations of albatrosses on Midway Atoll have a similar family reunion each year.

Every year, millions of albatrosses return to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Beginning in October, birds return to their same nesting site and reunite with their mate in the world’s largest colony of albatrosses. Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, have been hatching and raising chicks together since at least 2012, when biologists first banded Akeakamai.

Records managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory help scientists follow individual birds, such as Wisdom and Akeakamai, through their lifetime. 

Scientists can keep track of birds by placing aluminum and/or colored bands with identifying numbers on a bird’s legs. By tracking Wisdom, scientists have learned that these seabirds can live long lives and nest successfully for decades.

Wisdom’s chick pips its shell. Pipping is when a young bird begins to crack the shell of the egg when hatching. The father, Akeakamai, stands above the egg. Photo by by Jon Brack/Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

The first albatross was banded on Midway Atoll in 1936. To date, over 275,000 albatrosses have been banded at the refuge. By pairing modern data analysis with detailed current and historical records, biologists can make more informed management decisions that ensure seabirds have the habitat and resources they need in the future.

“Each year that Wisdom returns, we learn more about how long seabirds can live and raise chicks,” said Beth Flint, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Her return not only inspires bird lovers everywhere but helps us better understand how we can protect these graceful seabirds and the habitat they need to survive into the future.”

USGS staff manage an archive of more than 77 million banding records and more than 5 million encounter reports for over a thousand bird species in North America and trust territories. Information gathered through bird banding helps inform important management and conservation decisions. 

Learn more about the USGS lab, which is celebrating 100 years.

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