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Oldest known US wild bird is a new mother

Posted on 18. April, 2011.

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A Laysan albatross named Wisdom, believed to be at least 60 years old, was spotted a few weeks ago with a chick at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The bird has sported and worn out five bird bands since she was first banded in 1956 as she incubated an egg. At that time she was estimated to be at least 5 years old as this is the earliest age at which these birds breed.

“She looks great,” says Bruce Peterjohn, the chief of the North American Bird Banding Program at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. “And she is now the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird banding program.” He adds: “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.”

Peterjohn estimates that Wisdom has likely raised at least 30 to 35 chicks during her breeding life. Albatross lay only one egg a year and it takes much of a year to incubate and raise the chick. After years in which they have successfully raised and fledged a chick – which on Midway is about two-thirds of the time – the parents may take the occasional next year off from parenting.

Adult albatross mate for life, with both parents raising the young. However, it is not known if Wisdom has had the same partner all these years or not.

Almost as amazing as being a parent at 60 is the number of miles this bird has likely logged – about 50,000 miles a year as an adult. This means that Wisdom has flown at least 2 to 3 million miles since she was first banded, the equivalent of four to six trips from the Earth to the Moon and back.

Laysan albatross spend the first 3 to 5 years after fledging at sea, never touching land. Then they return to breed in the northwestern Hawaiian Island chain but some of their feeding grounds are actually off the coast of western North America, including the Gulf of Alaska. The parents tend to feed closer to the islands where their nests are when the chicks are very young, but they regularly commute to the northern Pacific Ocean and even the Gulf of Alaska when the chicks are older or when the adults are incubating.  They convert the fish eggs and squid oil they eat into a rich, oily liquid, which they regurgitate and feed to their chick.

In the non-breeding part of the year, albatross do not touch land. Scientists believe that they even sleep while flying over the ocean.

Peterjohn noted that Wisdom’s remarkable record is just one example of the valuable data provided by bird banding. In addition to establishing longevity records for birds, banding data from the North American Bird Banding Program documents migratory patterns, provides critical harvest and survival information used to manage populations of migratory game birds, and supports research activities on many issues from toxicology to disease transmission and behavior. Since 1920, approximately 64.5 million birds have been banded by this Interior Department-Canadian Wildlife Service program, and of those, nearly 4.5 million bands have been recovered.

In Picture: The oldest bird in the Northern Hemisphere raises a chick. Photo courtesy of John Klavitter, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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