Wisdom the Laysan Albatross

One of the Hardest Working Moms in the Pacific Ocean

Photo credit: Kristina McOmber/Kupu Conservation Leadership Program, USFWS

By Megan Nagel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Being a mom is hard work. And no mom works harder than the 66 year-old Laysan albatross named Wisdom.

Known to bird lovers and others as the oldest known wild bird, she returns to her home on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial each year. Laysan albatross spend much of their life foraging at sea, but at Midway Atoll, from approximately October through July, they are busy with the business of raising their next generation.

Wisdom and her mate. Photo by: Kiah Walker / USFWS

When you think about, being a mother at 66 is hard enough. But it can be even more difficult when you spend half of the year at sea, away from home.

But before you even get to the business of raising chicks, you have to find a mate. For albatross, which don’t become sexually mature until they are approximately five years old, finding a mate involves an intricate set of rituals — vocalizing, beaking and preening, and dancing until they find the right mate. Matching each other’s steps, raise both wings in salutation, bow low to one another, then raise their heads to the sky and call to each other — kerrrrrooooooo! Juveniles can be found year round at Midway Atoll, practicing their moves until they are ready to find their mate.

Albatross mate for life, although we know that because of Wisdom’s seemingly unusual longevity, she’s had several different mates. They return to the same nest site year after year, exhibiting high nest site fidelity. It takes nearly seven months to incubate the egg and raise a chick to fledge. In that time, Wisdom and her mate, like all albatross parents, take turn incubating the egg or caring for the chick while the other forages for food at sea.

Because Laysan albatross don’t lay eggs every year and when they do, they raise only one chick at a time, the contribution of even one bird to the population makes a difference. And Wisdom, she’s raised at least 30–35 chicks. Can you imagine how much energy that takes, when considering that over her lifetime she’s also logged an estimated three million miles in the air, returning year after year to a tiny atoll in the remote Pacific?

Photo credit: Dan Clark / USFWS

But Wisdom and her mate are not alone in calling the Refuge and Memorial home. Over three million individuals and 20 different species of birds call rely on this oasis in the remote Pacific. Midway Atoll is home to the world’s largest colony of albatross — nearly 70% of the world’s Laysan albatross almost 40% of Black-footed albatross, as well as endangered Short-tailed albatross all rely on the Refuge and Memorial.

Almost every inch of available nesting space is covered with albatross. Photo credit: Andy Collins NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

With less than two and a half square miles available across the three islands that comprise Midway Atoll, every piece of suitable habitat above ground and in burrows below, is occupied by seabirds. During the day and into the night, the sky is filled with albatross, flying to sea to forage or returning to their mate and nest.

Black footed albatross chick with plastics. Photo credit: Dan Clark/USFWS

Albatross do face many threats — invasive species like rats and cats or the ingestion of marine debris and plastics, which can lead to starvation and death for chicks in particular. Nineteen of the 22 species of albatross are at risk. That’s what makes protected places like Midway Atoll so critical. This and other National Wildlife Refuges across the remote Pacific ensure that albatross and other seabirds have a safe places to raise their young and rest — and that they have a future.

Wisdom and one of her chicks on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo credit: Ann Bell / USFWS

If you know a hard working mom, like Wisdom and her seabird friends, give them a shout out of appreciation. We know moms work hard, no matter where they are in the world.