An albatross nuzzles its mate. Both are wearing identifying bands on their legs.
Wisdom the Laysan Albatross (left) on Midway Atoll in 2015, with her mate, Akeakamai. Photo by Kiah Walker / USFWS via Wikimedia Commons.

When we first wrote about Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, in 2011, she was already an astounding 60 years old. She and her chick had just survived a tsunami that hit Midway Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and sadly swept away thousands of Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses in a single night. That was more than a decade ago. Even then she was the oldest known wild bird, with her own Wikipedia page, still raising young.

Wisdom is now at least 73 years old and still coming back to Midway Island each year. Biologists estimate she has flown at least 3 million miles, laid 50-60 eggs, and fledged some 30 chicks in her lifetime. Sadly, her longtime mate, Akeakamai, has not returned to Midway either of the last two seasons. Wisdom has not nested in either of those years, though she has been seen shaking it up in courtship dances with other albatrosses likely several decades her junior. (Watch an example of Laysan Albatross courtship dances.)

Wisdom was first banded in 1956 by legendary bird biologist Chan Robbins (who spoke with us about Wisdom in 2016, when Wisdom was 65 and Robbins was 97). Since then she has worn a band numbered Z333 that biologists have used to identify her over the years (the band itself has been replaced six times). She was an adult when she was banded, meaning she was at least 5 years old already in 1956.

Google street view of Midway showing laysan albatross chicks
Using Google Maps Street View, you can tour Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and see thousands of albatrosses and chicks scattered around the WWII-era buildings and airfields. Explore for yourself.

The 1950s were a period of population rebuilding for Laysan Albatrosses. Egg hunting and feather collecting had reduced their numbers to just 18,000 pairs by the 1920s. In the 1950s, after cessation of hunting and feathering, numbers had built back up above 200,000 breeding pairs. That’s still less than half the present-day population, meaning Wisdom must find the sands of Midway considerably more crowded than in her youth.

It’s safe to say that the world’s oldest known bird, having raised nearly three dozen offspring, qualifies as a a Super Mom and even as a Super Grandma. In 2022 that same chick that survived the 2011 tsunami with Wisdom, returned as an adult to Midway and raised its own chick.

And that got us thinking: in 2011 Wisdom already had some 50 years of parenting under her belt. Might Wisdom be a Super Great-Grandma? Or even a Super Great-Great-Grandma, or more? With more than 400,000 pairs of Laysan Albatrosses nesting on this sprawling island more than 1,300 miles from Honolulu, it’s hard for biologists to follow family lineages for sure. But we can certainly celebrate her monumental staying power and her own small but significant contribution to building back the numbers of Laysan Albatrosses.

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