For many, the end of the year is a time of anticipation. Children await presents, media workers await layoffs, and fans await the return of international celebrity Wisdom the Laysan albatross, or mōlī, to Midway Atoll, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. Wisdom's return to the island this year confirmed she is now at least 71 years old, holding fast to her title as the oldest known wild bird in the world. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific released photos that confirmed one other record for septuagenarian Wisdom, which is that she is literally the most gorgeous 71-year-old I've ever seen.
Show me a more beautiful 71-year-old. I dare you! Wisdom has nary a ruffle and makes the color white seem youthful. Two things can be true: Age is not an indicator of beauty, and no one is doing it like Wisdom the albatross.
Wisdom may even be older than 71. She was first tagged in 1956 by a naturalist named Chandler Robbins, who found the bird sitting on an egg in her nest on Midway Atoll, where millions of albatrosses come to nest and raise their eggs. Robbins was in his 30s when he banded Wisdom, who was at least five years old—the earliest age the species nests—but potentially older. When Robbins encountered Wisdom again on Midway Atoll in 2002, he realized she was at least 50 years old. Since then, Wisdom has returned yearly along with her long-time mate, Akeakamai, with whom she's raised many chicks since 2006. Akeakamai is a certified wife guy; his name is Hawaiian for "lover of Wisdom," according to an Audubon profile of Wisdom upon her 70th birthday.
Unfortunately, Akeakamai has not been seen this year. Wisdom's singularly advanced age means she may have shared a nest with other mates before Akeakamai, perhaps outliving them all. Scientists are unsure if Wisdom will take a new mate at this point in her life. But Wisdom, whose last chick hatched in February 2021, has never played by the rules.
Albatrosses fly thousands of miles over the ocean in search of food like squids. So scientists estimate that in the course of Wisdom's life, she has flown the equivalent of seven round-trips to the moon. This boggles my mind. Wisdom is braver than any astronaut! She's also survived tsunamis, lost an egg, and outlived Robbins, the naturalist who tagged her.
And yet for a bird who has done this much living, Wisdom looks incredible. Part of her ageless grace comes from the fact that she is a bird, and birds do not show their age the way humans do. Beaks don't wrinkle like human skin, and feathers stay plush without graying, Margo Rosenbaum reports for Audubon. Shorebirds also live longer than other kinds of animals their size, which scientists suspect may have to do with the biology required for annual migrations. Flying thousands of miles across the ocean requires a great memory for geography, strong muscles, and sharp vision and hearing. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Wisdom is the possibility that she may not be so unusual, after all. As USFW biologist Jon Plissner told National Geographic, "We also don’t know if she’s the exception. She’s probably just the oldest one we know about."
We will all die one day. But each year that Wisdom soars back home to Midway Atoll, having flown thousands and thousands of miles scooping up beakfuls of squid and seeing far more of the world than I could ever hope to, I feel dizzy with awe. May Wisdom outlive us all!