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Eugene, OR 97405
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How Long Do Birds Live?
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As we grow older, signs of age become more obvious. And, we can also see changes in our pets and in other mammals as they age.
But when have you ever seen a bird that looked “old”?
Birds' feathers don’t turn gray and you can’t see if there are wrinkles in their skin. Once they reach maturity, birds seem to show little change, which might raise the question: how long do birds live? I have been asked that question many times, but there is no single, simple answer.
Photo of female Black-headed Grosbeak, ©Dan Gleason, 2013
The oldest known living bird is a Laysan Albatross, named Wisdom, who is still breeding on Midway Island at the age of at least 60 years. She was first banded in 1956 and was then estimated to be 5 years old, but she was likely older as her species does not typically breed until 8–9 years of age.
Albatrosses may live a long time, but the birds coming to your backyard are certainly not as long-lived, although birds often live longer than similar-sized mammals. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that size equates to strength or stamina, assuming that something large must be strong and something tiny must be fragile. With such thinking, we might conclude that hummingbirds must be fragile and short-lived. But that idea would be incorrect. Hummingbirds are the smallest of the world’s birds, but we know that some hummingbirds can live up to 10–12 years. Similar-sized mammals, such as shrews, have a maximum life expectancy of about 1 1/2 years. But large mammals do not necessarily have long lives. Deer are certainly considered to be large mammals, but they usually live only 5–10 years; elephants do much better, living 60–80 years.
Most songbirds have an average life expectancy of 3–6 years, but this is highly variable
For example, we know some Bushtits have lived more than 8 years and the oldest known chickadee was over 12 years of age. Larger birds tend to live longer: gulls are known to live 10–25 years, the oldest Bald Eagle (in the wild) was 28, and an Ostrich may live over 40 years. Birds in captivity generally live much longer than their wild counterparts because they have constant care, food and protection.
Determining age in birds is difficult, usually requiring the ability to track an individual bird by capturing it, determining its age as much as possible, then banding and releasing it. To know how long it lives, researchers must be able to recapture it later. Although recapturing banded birds happens with very low frequency, there is now enough data to make some good estimates of how long birds typically live.
Knowing the longevity of certain birds may be interesting, but what are the implications for the birds that you see in your yard? When Dan was growing up he was told that the birds he saw in his yard were not the same individuals from year to year. But, it turns out that there is a high probability that many of the birds seen year after year are, in fact, the same individuals. They certainly live long enough and we now know that many species have strong site-fidelity, returning to the same winter or breeding locations year after year.
Such behavior is not true of all songbirds, however. Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings, for instance, wander over a wide area in search of food, especially in the winter. For such species, individual birds seen in your yard may be different from week to week or even day to day. But many species do return to the same location.
Black-capped Chickadee, carrying nesting material: cat's fur!
Some species of birds are present throughout the year. Black-capped Chickadees that visit your feeders in winter will very likely nest nearby. They may spend most of their lives in that same general region and since they may live 10–12 years, you are probably seeing the same individuals at your feeder. By mid to late May, your feeder may be visited by Black-headed Grosbeaks, although they may only stay a few days before heading to nearby woods to breed. Their spring arrival time is predictable, but are these the same birds? Since they can live 8–9 years, there is a strong possibility that many of the males are the same. However, there is a much lower probability of females returning to the same site. Male Black-headed Grosbeaks have very strong site-fidelity, returning to the same nesting areas each year, but females are much less likely to do so. A female could breed in Eugene one year and perhaps return to some place in southern Washington or eastern Oregon the next year.
Birds can live relatively long lives, so you may have the opportunity to see the same individuals over the course of several years. But many other factors must also be considered. Is the species in question non-migratory and thus always in the same general area? Does a migrant have strong fidelity to its summer or winter location, returning to the same area year after year? Or is it a species that wanders, feeding and breeding in various locations? Without marking individual birds it is impossible to say for sure that you are seeing the same birds, but for many species, you can probably say that many of “your birds” are in fact many of the same individuals.