The Fourth River

Essay: “Wisdom: A Bird,” By Kim Steutermann Rogers

By on November 18, 2016

from The Fourth River, issue 13




The oldest known wild bird in the world, an albatross, is 64 and right about now—late November—she’s probably gliding over a mutable line in the North Pacific, a transition zone where cold water meets warm and an abundance of nourishing goodies make their way to the surface, as yet another egg—maybe the fortieth or forty-fifth of her lifetime—makes its way from an ovary through her oviduct, two forms of life following paths within their own watery terrain.

Catching a familiar scent, our matriarch angles her body, trailing the tip of a long wing in the water, writing her story on the surface of the sea. She turns into the wind, her body lifting on a current of air. When she reaches the apex of this invisible energy, she trims a wing and curves away, the wind propelling her forward while she slides back toward the sea. At the last moment, just before colliding with the ocean’s ceiling, she turns back into the wind, gaining in altitude, then tilting away and down, zig-zagging and undulating like this without a single beat of her wings toward the powerful center of a tantalizing scent. There, she finds a boat slinging its miles of fishing line into the water, giant metal hooks flying every which way, each offering bits of bait to tempt our hungry girl.

But that’s not really what I want to tell you about. Not yet, at least.

Have you heard of Pihemanu? In the North Pacific? How about Tohoku, Japan?

Let’s start with Pihemanu, an atoll in the North Pacific with a Hawaiian name that can be translated as “the loud din of birds,” but might be better known as the atoll of Midway, site of the famous World War II battle that changed the tide of the war, tipping it in favor of the United States and her allies. Its highest point of elevation is 42 feet above sea level.

And, now, Tohoku. A few years ago, in March 2011, 45 miles east of Japan off a region known as Tohoku, two of the Earth’s tectonic plates collided 15 miles below the sea’s surface in a magnitude-9 earthquake. A wave of another kind, not tidal—this one more catastrophic than your normal shallow water wave caused by the everyday gravitational interactions between the sun, moon, and Earth—this wave, a tsunami, took off at 500 miles per hour for the U.S. with Midway as first point of contact. Within minutes, an early warning system alerted the 67 residents there, and they hunkered down on the third floor of a one-time military barracks, armed with two-weeks-worth of food and water and, hopefully, enough to see them through whatever washed over them.

The same warning system shut down high-speed trains and factory assembly lines in Tokyo. Emergency text alerts pinged in a chorus on cell phones. But, still, the number dead in Japan tallied more than 15,000, mostly the result of drowning. The waves destroyed tsunami seawalls, ran up 128 feet above sea level in places, toppled three-story evacuation buildings, surged inland six miles, and flooded 217 square miles. And triggered a nuclear meltdown.

But Wisdom. She’s out there playing chicken with a long-line fishing boat.

Wisdom. That’s the name she was given after kindly ornithologist Chandler Robbins was at Pihemanu, some 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawai‘i, catching and banding tens of thousands of the million-and-a-half albatrosses that come to breed.

Let me pause here and consider the atoll’s Hawaiian name, Pihemanu, “the loud din of birds?” One-and-a-half million breeding albatrosses in a place about the size of the Louisville International Airport. That’s roughly one bird per square foot. So, the place is birdy. Hitchcockian. And the mating calls of albatross are, shall we say, vociferous, with whistling, clacking, and mooing going on at all hours of the day and night.

Anyway, Robbins spent some 40 years off and on at the Laysan albatross breeding capital of the world to band these giant birds with the six-foot-plus wingspans and four-inch, serrated bills, so we could learn something about them. Like how long they live. As it turns out, this particular species of birds outlives their metal identification bands. In 2002, Robbins happened to re-band a bird that data later revealed he’d originally banded in 1956, and that bird, a female, was given the name Wisdom for her sagacity—over 51 years at that point—evading the many threats of seabirds, including flying fish hooks reeling off the backs of boats.

Every November where I live, I dig out my yellow Rite in the Rain notebook and with a pencil write the year atop a fresh, waterproof page. Then, I wait, scanning the horizon for the winged works of art with airbrushed-like faces that are Laysan albatross.

This colony, re-populated in the last 50 years, sits some 1,000 miles southeast of Midway but along the same long archipelago—the Hawaiian Islands. Some 300 breeding pairs are spread across a botanical garden, a national wildlife refuge, undeveloped private lands, and the front- and backyards of family homes, less than one percent of the total population.

At the beginning of every breeding season, I wonder who will come back. What birds will survive the fishhooks camouflaged as tempting treats? I worry whether the females will find enough food in our thinning oceans to meet the caloric demands of making and laying an egg.

I have years of data—the band numbers of those who have paired up and raised a chick, those chicks that have returned as sub-adults, those sub-adults that are dancing with others in search for their life-long partners, those sub-adults now reproducing—for a swath of undeveloped land where Laysan albatross now nest.

On my first survey, I come up empty. Not a single bird has returned from the sea. Three days go by. Then, I receive a text from the property manager: “They’re baaaaaaack.”

I grab my notebook, binoculars, and camera with the ridiculously heavy super telephoto lens, and I head out the door, driving my four-wheel drive truck down a two-lane highway, make a right, cross a one-lane bridge, enter a gate, follow a dirt trail to a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where I find five adult Laysan albatross. I know two. They are wearing identification bands around their legs. One nested here for the past three years. The other put in many hours of courtship dancing last year. Maybe it will nest this year, I think. The other three are unbanded.

The next week, there are forty.

Fourteen days after the first one arrived, I receive another text: “A lot of feathers on bluff. Couldn’t find a bird they belong to.”

I am already moving.

The night of the tsunami in the North Pacific, a tidal gauge at Pihemanu recorded four tsunami waves, the largest measuring just over five feet, and the 67 people, mostly wildlife biologists and those tasked with maintaining the wildlife refuge, slipped from the third-floor evacuation shelter to their beds in darkness, safe.

They woke to glassy seas and dead birds everywhere. Drowned. Crushed by trees. Buried in sand. All told an estimated 212,000 Laysan albatross chicks and adults were estimated killed at Pihemanu plus another 42,000 lost at other nearby atolls and islands.

When the tsunami rolled across the Pacific at speeds equal to that of commercial airliners, it took five hours to travel the 2,400 miles to Pihemanu. The albatross nesting season was in full bloom. Some half million chicks, fluffy with down but not old enough to fly, sat in nest cups on the ground.

Others that weren’t dead were found with just their heads sticking out of the sand. Others with broken wings were twisted in giant tumbleweeds of twigs and branches. Others, waterlogged and unable to fly, floated on debris in the lagoon. Others, dazed, had apparently been picked up by the wave and deposited hundreds of feet from their nests. Others were just gone.

And Wisdom? She was at sea, perhaps near the Aleutian Islands. Albatross will fly several thousand miles to provide their chicks a single feeding. Her mate survived, too. But her chick? It was sitting on its nest in an area out of harm’s way when Wisdom returned to feed it.

There has been an attack on an albatross, that’s what the text is telling me.

I am moving again.

I grab a towel in case the bird is injured and a plastic bag in case it is dead. I alert a seabird biologist and a seabird rehabilitator.

Destructive tsunamis aren’t new. A few years back, paleoecologists digging in a limestone cave 328 feet from the ocean’s edge on Kaua‘i’s south shore unearthed 500-year-old evidence of a massive tsunami, likely exceeding magnitude-9 and originating in the Aleutian Islands. It had to breach a 25-foot wall to enter the cave.

But as oceans rise, soon surpassing the rate at which coral atolls can keep up, islands and coastal communities will be even more vulnerable to tsunamis and hurricanes and, even, your regular winter storm, because the waves will plow right on shore unimpeded by the reefs that once stopped them.

The 2011 North Pacific tsunami is making civil defense officials re-think emergency actions in the event of the next tsunami—because there will be another, and it will be destructive, maybe even catastrophic. But that’s for humans. What about the wildlife? What are the emergency evacuation plans for birds that nest on the ground with an incubation period of up to 65 days? What about their chicks, grounded for five months until their stubby wings stretch into majestic wingspans, their down into feathers, their first flight that takes them out to sea for three to five years?

I find the feathers. They’re white and scattered across a plateau overlooking the ocean. I pick up a clump still attached to skin. But there’s no body. Not like when a dog attacks, gives the bird a death shake, drops the body, and moves on to kill the next bird. Not like when an owl rips out the heart, leaving the rest of the body intact.

But there are pig tracks. In pig attacks, it’s usually a sounder at work with multiple trails of feathers leading deep into brushy ravines where the pigs devour every part of the bird, legs, bill, skull included. Then, there is nothing left to find. The thing is albatross evolved during a time when there were no mammalian land predators in Hawai‘i to disturb them, so they do not fear dogs, cats, rats, and pigs. Nor humans. Their fidelity to their nests—the one egg they lay a year and the one chick that hatches from it—is so strong they will not abandon it. Not even in the face of death. Their parental devotion is admirable.

But something’s not right.

I remember the day being sunny, and the winds light—not what we call good flight weather for albatross. That’s when something clicks. There aren’t enough feathers. I don’t see any long, grey-brown flight feathers on the ground.

I take a closer look at the birds that are alive, the ones already sitting on nests, the others wandering around awaiting their mate’s return from sea.

And I see her, her right wing drooping and trailing a thin line in the red dirt as she walks. Did she somehow evade the pigs?

I take a few photos, text them to the biologist and rehab specialist. They’re concerned, come out, catch her, take her away.

Later, after consulting my Rite in the Rain notebook, I realize I know KP708, a female. She’d partnered with KP747 for three straight years but skipped the past two breeding seasons.

The thing that disturbs me about tsunamis and hurricanes is people rarely think of the wildlife. This past summer, when Hurricane Loke brushed Pearl and Hermes Reef, an atoll some 80 miles south of Midway, not a word of it was mentioned in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. When a Hurricane Guillermo passed north of O‘ahu, the most common response I heard to the news was, “Phew.” And again a week later when Hurricane Kilo went southwest of us, the response was, “Thank goodness another one missed us.” When both Guillermo and Kilo then took paths directly for Pihemanu and the other uninhabited atolls in the Hawaiian Island chain, I did not hear anything like, “But what about the birds?”

Two days go by, and I receive another text: “Just wanted you to know that the Laysan albatross had significant injuries to her wing and was not able to be rehabilitated.”

That is code for: She was euthanized.

A rising tide does not lift all boats. Not for seabirds nesting on atolls. A modest sea level rise of three feet would claim 65 acres of the island where Wisdom nests, leaving the “high” islands, or the main Hawaiian Islands where people live and tourists come to play, the species’ hope for the future.

Somehow, the birds must know.

After hundreds of years of absence, these amazing birds that can glide for hundreds of miles and several days across the sea without a single flap of their wings are returning to the main Hawaiian Islands, the high islands. It may only be a fraction of one percent of the total Laysan albatross population, but the numbers are growing. Their nest sites are dotting the islands of Kaua‘i and O‘ahu.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re co-habitating all that well with them. Almost every year, a dog or two attacks a colony, leaving a trail of dead birds. Last year, cats took out a couple dozen chicks. Now, it looks like feral pigs are brazenly going after adults. Just this week, a person—a human—or two desecrated a colony on O‘ahu, crushing eggs, mutilating adult birds, and stealing conservation equipment.

So what does it matter? It can all be so defeating. What does anything matter? We are gutted. And powerless. And they are just birds, after all.

But, then, I see something on Facebook. After months at sea, ticking off tens of thousands of the nearly fifty million miles logged thus far in her life—evading fishhooks and sharks and deadly plastic marine debris—Wisdom is back. She’s returned to her nesting grounds where her faithful mate awaits. They consecrate their commitment to each other, he on top of her, and it’s photographed, the news racing across the Internet, clipping across the ocean to the rest of the world at speeds that would put a tsunami to shame.

Weeks later, the miracle happens. It’s near Christmas. The chosen one, encased in blood vessels, grows to the size of a large avocado and travels twice the length of Wisdom’s body in her oviduct to emerge from an opening no bigger than the eraser atop my pencil. An egg. The 64-year-old Laysan albatross has laid an egg. Again. I wonder how many she has left, and I think about endurance and dedication and daring that is this bird, an albatross, Wisdom, who defies odds and teaches me about life and joy and hope.



Kim Steutermann Rogers lives with three chickens, two dogs, and one husband on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai where she writes, mostly, about the unique and often endangered species of Hawaii’s flora and fauna. She’s also working on a nonfiction book about my search for a missing journal of Mark Twain’s and the environmental psychology concept called place attachment. She holds a bachelor of journalism from Missouri School of Journalism and a MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Earlier this year, she was named the inaugural fellow at Storyknife. Read more of her work at