Seventy Never Looked So Good: The Long, Wondrous Life of Wisdom the Albatross
One autumn day halfway through the 20th century, a Laysan Albatross returned to Midway Atoll, built a nest in the sand, and settled in to incubate her annual egg. A firm believer in “nest-site fidelity,” the albatross had made this same trip most autumns of her adult life—doing the work of countless generations of albatrosses before her. Each year millions of seabirds return to this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to breed. And over the centuries, the generations of humans who watch these seabirds have given them myriad names: mōlī, a nod to the tattooing needles that native Hawaiians once crafted with the birds’ bones; albatross, derived from an Arabic term for “diver”; Laysan, after an even smaller neighboring island that, in turn, was named for a Russian explorer’s ship.
This particular mid-century albatross was probably called “gooneybird” by the few thousand humans living on Midway in the years after the Second World War. The moniker served as a collective nickname for the albatross masses that waddled past Midway’s Naval air station, barracks, and Gooneyville Lodge. But let us pan down from this unnamed gooneybird and zoom in on her egg, because inside that shell is an albatross story that stretches into the next millennium.
This egg will hatch without fanfare, and the bird inside it will spend her life as expected: at sea 90 percent of the time, flying back to the same square of sand to incubate no more than one egg per year with her long-term mate. As the decades pass, she will keep returning to Midway, logging at least three million flight miles. She will build nests for more than three dozen eggs in 65 years. And while she does so, the albatross will cross paths with a roster of humans who are keen to keep tabs on her: naturalists, photographers, volunteers, and, eventually, superfans.
When humans learn that this bird has lasted into her sixth decade, she will receive a name all her own. Not mōlī or gooney, but Wisdom: a worldwide symbol of nature’s endurance and hard-won seabird smarts. Her longevity will make her the star of children’s books, an icon on tote bags, and the subject of countless jubilant news reports. Because Wisdom, the inhabitant of this mid-century albatross egg, will live to become the oldest wild bird on the planet—as far as humans know, at least.
This winter Wisdom flew back to Midway once again to build a nest for what might be her 39th egg. Not bad for a mother set to turn 70 this year, alongside fellow Baby Boomers Bootsy Collins and Charo—though the latter entertainer’s actual age is supposedly older than she admits. And just like Charo, it’s difficult to know Wisdom’s age for certain; better to say the albatross is at least 70.
She was first tagged in 1956 by legendary naturalist Chandler Robbins, who found her on her nest, incubating an egg. Laysan Albatrosses don’t nest until five years of age at the earliest, so this puts her latest possible hatch year at 1951. But since some birds don’t incubate an egg until age 10, and since we don’t know whether or not Robbins found her atop her very first egg, Wisdom could easily be a more advanced septuagenarian, sharing a hatch year with Stevie Wonder (1950) or Vera Wang (1949) or even Iggy Pop (1947).
Wisdom might have been born in 1948, like Jenny Johnson, who moved to Midway Naval base with her family when she was in fifth grade. While Johnson’s father served as harbormaster from 1958 to 1960, she attended its tiny school, went to square dances, and twirled a baton in the Independence Day parade. The backdrop of her childhood was the mesmerizing avifauna of Midway, a part-time home to more than 20 seabird species including Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Sooty Terns, and three types of albatrosses. “It was a fantastic place for a 10-year-old child to be—well, a child like me, anyway,” Johnson says. “I had birds to play with all around my house and everywhere I went.” In her time on Midway, Johnson cared for abandoned Laysan chicks and White “Fairy” Terns, and she befriended the pair of Laysans who nested outside her family home. These years bred in Johnson an affinity for Midway’s winged inhabitants that extended far beyond her youth.
An albatross’s youth ends with its first long trip out to sea to learn the ropes of open-water feeding. Then the adolescent birds return to Midway not to breed but to practice dancing. Albatross courtship requires a mastery of sounds and full-body choreography, which Laysans hone by grooving about the island in small groups and pairs. American Bandstand premiered just as Wisdom would have attended her own mōlī sock hops. While human teenagers from Midway to the Midwest taught each other the stroll, Wisdom was impressing her own peers with bows and twists and bill-clacks. But a Laysan’s courtship dance is more complex than any bunny hop, with quicker gestures than the hand jive and even more changeups than the Madison. Early adult birds dance for years, winnowing their dance cards and sharpening their poses to eventually mirror those of a single mate with whom they might partner for life.
Imagine Wisdom rocking her dance while “Tutti Frutti” blares through the window of Midway’s nearby bachelor’s barracks. She stretches her neck and bill to form one tall column of mōlī, then dips her snowy head under her wing in a classic albatross dab. Keeping her gray-framed eyes fixed on her partner, she pops her head and snaps her bill in syncopation, ending with the albatross’s signature lowing bellow: awop-bop-a-loomop-awop-bam-MOOOOOOOO!
ong after Wisdom’s early dancing days were over, in 1962, she received a second band, and she was re-banded four more times in the decades that followed. These markers did not share a unified number, as bird count methodologies changed over time. Moreover, unlike the hardy stainless-steel cuffs used today, these bands were aluminum—a metal prone to decay when affixed to an on-the-go bird’s leg.
Many of Wisdom’s compatriots that sported similar bands lost them at sea, then flew home to Midway as naked as a seabird, and therefore untrackable. Keeping tabs on a bird for decades proves tricky when there are so many holes through which the data can fall. This is one of the reasons we can’t know how many other Laysans on Midway are as old as Wisdom; some might even be older. Perhaps dozens of other nests on the island—hundreds, even!—have Golden Girls–aged albatrosses sitting atop them. Only in this century have we widely applied the data systems that allow us to tell a Laysan’s age for sure.
Since humans know nothing about the specific birds Wisdom consorted with from her 20s to her 50s, we also can’t say whether her mate has been the same albatross all these years. Given Wisdom’s longevity, it’s unlikely her partner in 1956 was the same bird as her current mate—an albatross that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began monitoring in 2006. Presumably, at some point in the past half-century, a newly single Wisdom returned to the Midway dance floor to do the albatross hustle, the Laysan electric slide, or the (ill-advised) gooneybird macarena. No matter the dance, it brought her to the bird that now wears a field band numbered G000. He was known to Midway’s humans as Goo or Mister Goo for a decade, until a 2016 public contest renamed him the much classier Akeakamai: Hawaiian for “lover of Wisdom.”
Every year that Wisdom nests with the albatross formerly known as Goo, she lands at her designated spot and begins making slow circles in the sand. Her flat feet stamp out a shallow depression, which she fortifies with twigs and leaf litter. Within days of filling the nest with its intended contents, Akeakamai arrives to relieve her so that she can fly a thousand miles to fill her belly with squid and then return for further weeks of vigilant sitting. And every season that she’s done so over the past 29 years, a human has stopped by the nest and counted it with a click.
Midway’s first Albatross nest census began in 1992 after researchers suggested that longline fishing methods—in which miles of linked and baited hooks are dragged behind ships—gravely affect albatross mortality rates. (U.S. regulations have since managed the practice among American fisheries, but an international agreement to reduce the risk of longline fishing to birds is still pending.) “Right then and there was motivation for us to start paying closer attention to population levels in albatrosses,” says Beth Flint, a wildlife biologist with the FWS Marine National Monuments of the Pacific. This motivation brought about what Flint calls “a species data stream that is almost without parallel” for the largest albatross colony on Earth.
“Albatrosses are delightfully easy to count in some ways,” Flint says. “You don’t have to find them and they’re very civilized about sitting there as you walk past.” The difficulty lies in how densely they cover the island: some half-million nests on a space roughly twice the size of Central Park. At the apex of nesting season, trained volunteer teams comb every inch of Midway Atoll for a few weeks, clocking more than six miles daily on their pedometers and resting only on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Flint says the count’s devoted volunteers “come from all walks of life, from university professors to bike couriers.”
The nest census alumni list also includes writer Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk. She took part in the 2018 count after noting in her application that she was “really good at reading bird body language.” This turned out to be an auxiliary skill used mostly during her downtime, when she’d bike to a remote spot and sit among thousands of nests. “It’s just this incredible sight,” she says. “When it’s raining, they all lift their beaks upward to drink. When it’s windy, they open their wings and surf a little bit on the air.”
Wisdom was on a feeding flight when Macdonald arrived. Other nest counters were buzzing about when—or, heaven forbid, if—the sexagenarian bird might return. When she finally showed, Wisdom made the same elaborate shift change Macdonald saw among other birds: an “intense negotiation” of the bonded pair swapping places atop the nest. “They have these complicated discussions, calling to each other,” she says. Wisdom might behave like many birds that, after the long nest vigil, must be shoved away by their partners. Or she might react like a few birds Macdonald observed, “leaping off the egg, like, ‘I cannot anymore! Oh god, I can’t wait to get back to sea!’ ”
In the early days of the count, Wisdom’s nest was marked with turf paint by a volunteer scouring the island. But after a rat-eradication program helped Bonin Petrels rebound, the census takers had to limit their steps to avoid stomping through the ground nesters’ domiciles. Volunteers adapted their methods and began walking in tight ranks, which Macdonald describes as “a bit of a Top Gun thing.”
Wearing large hats and shades, they carry tally clickers in each hand and count all the nests between themselves and their nearest colleague. Necessity has also bred the invention of special Midway counting shoes—pieces of plywood lashed to sneaker soles that further dampen footfalls. “You have to learn to use new muscles,” Macdonald explains, “because you’re basically walking like an astronaut all day.”
Also donning the Midway astronaut shoes is Jenny Johnson, Wisdom’s baton-twirling neighbor from the 1950s. She and her husband, Richard, volunteered for their first count 21 years ago, and like a pair of albatrosses, they’ve returned to the atoll nearly each year since. Johnson marvels at what she’s seen in the fields of her former home—the intricacies discovered by watching generations of birds communicate: “I mean, every square foot of this island is covered in albatross,” she explains. “Nesting albatross, walking albatross. Albatross dancing, fighting, talking to their eggs. The noise level is unbelievable as you count them.”
or the first 15 years of the nest census, Wisdom was just a tally click—another smoky-eyed face in the crowd. A new era of visibility began in 2002, when Robbins returned to Midway to “re-sight” previously marked albatrosses. For the third time in his long life, Robbins—who was 83 at the time—tagged Wisdom. Back home in Maryland at the USGS Bird Banding Lab (the office where Robbins reported right up until his death four years ago at age 98), he followed the paper trail back through five decades’ worth of bands. That’s when Robbins realized he’d first met this bird during the Eisenhower administration.
Robbins wrote Midway’s brand-new FWS refuge wildlife biologist, John Klavitter, since the bird’s revised age set a new precedent for Laysan life expectancy. Klavitter was eager to see the bird for himself, but he hit a hurdle: “We didn’t know exactly where she was.” Robbins had drawn maps showing her general location: a yard roughly the size of a football field. That area easily hosted up to 2,000 nests, each occupied not by one bird but an alternating couple. Add to this the fact that service bands aren’t easy to spot on a seated bird. For a few more years, the superlative albatross remained incognito.
Then Klavitter read about Grandma, the Northern Royal Albatross who became a national treasure after nesting on New Zealand’s Taiaroa Head biennially from 1938 to 1989, breeding her last chick at the estimated age of 62. He remembered the senior Laysan on his own island and imagined her legacy mirroring Grandma’s in the public eye.
That’s how the quest to locate Wisdom gained momentum. Klavitter’s team searched throughout 2005’s nesting season, and did so again in 2006, when the epic game of albatross Where’s Waldo finally paid off.
The bird’s proper name popped into Klavitter’s head shortly after he’d placed a stainless-steel band on her left leg and a PVC band—cherry red and readable from a distance—around her right leg. “We didn’t have a contest or anything; it just came to me,” he says: Wisdom. With that, Klavitter “started tracking her, then we started talking about Wisdom in press releases. And it took off from there.” Wisdom’s legend quickly attracted fans across the globe. Every year that she builds another nest (which she’s done nearly all of the past 15 years), the first sighting of her egg makes headlines: “Wisdom Astounds Scientists,” “Albatross Won’t Stop Laying,” “Really Old Bird with Chicks.”
Five years into Wisdom’s new life as a Midway spokesmodel, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the Japanese coast sent a tsunami event toward the atoll. A series of waves, the largest five feet high, made landfall overnight, covering 60 percent of Midway’s Eastern Island. Wisdom’s nest sits on Sand Island, which was only 20 percent inundated, and the damage reached neither her nest nor the nearby barracks where Midway’s humans sheltered in place. She was likely gone on a hunting trip when the waves hit, her latest chick waiting for her on the still-dry land.
For more than a week after the tsunami, staff and volunteers rescued chicks buried neck-deep in sand. They freed adults trapped by debris and scooped up water-logged albatrosses in the lagoon. Ten days later, when she was finally spotted back on the island, feeding her chick, the exclamatory press release was picked up by NPR and the BBC: “Wisdom Found!”
This wasn’t the first tsunami to hit in Wisdom’s lifetime, and it certainly isn’t the only threat she has survived. Plastics, which were barely part of the global economy when Wisdom hatched, now wash ashore on Midway, other Pacific atolls, and the Hawaiian Islands, by the hundreds of tons each year. Some 98 percent of albatross chicks born on Midway are fed plastic marine debris before they fledge. But climate change will have an even greater impact, since the vast majority of the planet’s Laysan Albatrosses breed on low-lying islands that are sure to be altered by both rising sea levels and increased wave action. What’s more, young birds risk dehydration in hotter summers, and diminishing winds will make takeoffs from Midway more treacherous.
A new threat arose on Midway in 2015, when census counters noticed that mice had begun feasting on nesting albatrosses. The mice attacks led to nearly 1,000 abandoned nests in 2016, and 250 adults that stubbornly kept incubating their eggs were mortally wounded by the bites. Within a year, the attacks had spread across the atoll. Wisdom, of course, has been heavily monitored with a special trail camera, and kiosks of rodenticide pellets were placed near her nest. “There are 50-some people living on Midway. Everyone knows where she is,” FWS’s Matt Brown reassured Audubon in 2018. A long-term, multi-tiered plan to eradicate the mice is set to begin next year.
Photographer and field biologist Naomi Blinick contributed to early mouse eradication efforts when she extended her stay on Midway after the 2017 count. She wove through seabird nests, hand-casting bait pellets and checking birds to map the infestation. She was on her way to refill a bait station when she first passed the throne of Midway’s grandest dame. Around Valentine’s Day, when Wisdom’s umpteenth chick hatched, Blinick lent her expertise and long camera lenses to get a photo of the new baby. Like a concertgoer at an outdoor festival, she searched for a rare spot on the Bravo barracks lawn, “out of the way of anybody else’s wing flapping.”
While thousands of animals around her sat still on their eggs, Blinick sat still, too, watching Wisdom for three straight days. “It was a very long time to do nothing but stare at one bird,” Blinick says. And Wisdom didn’t exactly make love to the camera, either. Much more stoic than the fidgety nesters around her, “she would get up for, like, a second and then she’d turn her back to me,” Blinick says. “And then it would be, like, another hour before she’d even move again!” She likens Wisdom’s cool, top-status demeanor to that of another septuagenarian diva: Anna Wintour.
After the paparazzi stakeout, Blinick volunteered to remain on the island to organize its massive photo archive. Then she extended her stay further. Blinick had found a mate of her own on Midway: refuge biologist Meg Duhr. “I can’t think of my experience with the birds of that amazing island without thinking of meeting my own amazing partner,” Blinick says. On the atoll known for fabulous courtship displays, Blinick and Duhr found their own way to shine for each other. At one of Midway’s epic karaoke nights, shortly before they flew away together, the pair grabbed microphones, faced each other like two albatrosses mid-dance, and crooned that great human song about love as the ultimate refuge: “Islands in the Stream.”
he first Wisdom sighting of this breeding season came late in November, when she was seen atop what could be her 39th egg. FWS public affairs officer Megan Nagel wrote the press release announcing the bird’s return to Midway with what she describes as an amplified enthusiasm. “I think at the end of 2020 we were all looking for something to look forward to,” Nagel says, “a sort of assurance. Like, the sun is going to rise, the sun is going to set, and Wisdom is going to come back to Midway Atoll. What an amazing piece of hope—this year especially.”
The island hasn’t changed much for albatrosses since the last breeding season, but it’s been significantly altered for human life. COVID-19 postponed research projects. New arrivals to Midway quarantined for two weeks in their tiny dorms. And the annual nest census shrank to a skeleton crew of only the most seasoned counters. That tiny group included Richard and Jenny Johnson, called out of census retirement for this modified count. Wisdom was not the only septuagenarian hard at work on Midway this winter.
Since their crew was reduced by a dozen, the Johnsons found the labor more challenging. Jenny Johnson told herself the soreness in her body was “the kind of pain that’s for a good purpose. That way, it just doesn’t hurt quite as bad.” Yet the work wasn’t without its perks. Short staffing meant the couple remained on Midway longer this season, which allowed them to see new milestones in the albatross life cycle. This year’s first chick, a Black-footed Albatross, hatched in mid-January, and for the first time in her nest census career, Jenny Johnson witnessed it. Later in the month, she spotted a Laysan hatching, too.
But Johnson, who goes further back with Wisdom than any living human, did not share a face-to-face goodbye with her albatross peer when her final count concluded. Like many of the people who care for Wisdom and her massive community, Johnson mostly kept her distance. “We try and make sure that we don’t bother her,” she says. “She’s in an area that is semi-protected, and few people ever have a need to go past her. She’s picked a good spot.”
A few days into 2021, Wisdom returned to that spot from another crucial feeding trip and relieved Akeakamai by taking her place on their latest egg. Someone set up a 360-degree camera not far from her nest so fans could check in with Wisdom, and the captured video depicts not just her but also a carpet of albatrosses in every direction. The air was cacophonous with seabirds, but for her part, Wisdom stayed quiet. She squinted a bit in the morning sun as it hit her cheek. We could watch two non-breeding Laysans bob, moo, and click behind her. But we couldn’t see the humans who treaded lightly around Wisdom’s island in strange, homespun shoes, clicking their handheld counters each time they spotted a nest like hers. And because the camera wasn’t trained to her nest on February 1, we also didn’t see the moment when her latest egg hatched.
Midway’s census workers clocked close to 500,000 nests this year. This number represents nearly a million and a half individuals—one on the nest, one on the wing, and one in the egg for every little home in the sand. That’s one and a half million Wisdoms, and the humans are still counting.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2021 issue as “The Grande Dame of Midway.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.