Meet "Wisdom," the oldest-known bird in the wild

In her 60s, the Laysan albatross has seen a lot in her years on Midway Atoll—including a world before plastics

Meet "Wisdom," the oldest-known bird in the wild

This week on the broadcast, 60 Minutes takes viewers to Midway Atoll, a remote group of islands in the Pacific Ocean that sit roughly equidistant between North America and Asia. Although Midway is geographically isolated and off-limits to the public, it's hardly a pristine paradise.

Instead, as Sharyn Alfonsi reports, it has become a hub of plastic garbage, a refuge for refuse that washes in with the tide. Hundreds of tons of plastic have been retrieved from Midway in the last two decades alone.   

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Debris that has washed up on Midway Atoll

One casualty of Midway's plastic scourge is the atoll's most famous resident, the Laysan Albatross. The birds mistake plastic for food, then eat it and feed it to their offspring. Plastic can kill the birds, either by filling up their stomachs and leaving little room for food and nutrients, or by tearing at their insides.

"Every single bird at Midway has plastic in its stomach—every bird—you know, plastic bags and children's toys," associate producer David Levine told 60 Minutes Overtime's Ann Silvio in the video above. Levine produced Alfonsi's piece with 60 Minutes producer Michael Gavshon.

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An albatross sits amid plastic trash on Midway Atoll

Amid Midway's dying birds, one albatross has defied expectation: a decades-old female named Wisdom. According to Gavshon, when scientists tagged Wisdom for study in 1956, they estimated that she was about five years old at the time. That makes her the oldest known bird in the wild.

Now a dame in her late 60s, Wisdom is still having chicks. She laid her most recent egg in late November, and scientists on Midway believe that before that, she had already raised at least 35 chicks.

As other albatrosses with plastic-filled bellies die around her, Wisdom has become a source of optimism for scientists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls Wisdom "a world-renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive."

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In her late 60s, Wisdom the Laysan albatross is the oldest known bird in the wild U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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One of Wisdom's chicks

Hatched before plastic became ubiquitous, Wisdom and her neighbors show that, when it comes to plastics in the ocean, the albatross on Midway have become a canary in the coal mine.  

"She's seen the entire arc of the problem grow," Levine said. "You know, the story of Wisdom is in a way the sort of story of plastic in the ocean itself."

To watch Sharyn Alfonsi's two-part 60 Minute report on plastic pollution, click here.

The video above was produced by Ann Silvio and Lisa Orlando. It was edited by Lisa Orlando.

Footage of "Wisdom" courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Underwater footage courtesy of NatureFootage