My favorite bird-related question, although it is not in a top ten FAQS, is “how long do birds live?” It is my favorite because the answer is not a simple number. The answer depends. Moreover, it depends on many different factors. And that gives me the opportunity to explain why it depends.
One major factor influencing the life expectancy of a bird is its living conditions. A bird living in captivity, say in a zoo or aviary, will outlive the same species living in the wild. In captivity it is safe from predators, sheltered from the environment, receives nutritious food on regular basis without having to hunt for it, and may even receive medical attention when needed. Life in the wild is considerably tougher.
In a similar way, human life expectancy is also highly dependent on living conditions. People living in first world countries tend to outlive those in third world countries, war torn areas or drought regions. They live under better conditions, have better sanitation, access to better nutrition and medical care with fewer mortal perils. So it is not surprising that a captive bird will outlive its wild cousin. A bird in your backyard that may regularly live for 8 years in the wild, could live an additional 4 or 5 years in captivity. It might be a duller life, but it will be longer. So when we reference life expectancy number, it helps to know if it is based on a wild or captive birds.
A bird’s life expectancy also depends on how you define the term. Sadly, most birds do not live to be one year old. The first year is tough on youngsters. Some studies show that the first month may be the most deadly. They are not experienced in finding food or shelter and have not learned to avoid predators. The majority, more than 50% die in infancy or adolescence. If you include all these infant mortalities when calculating the average life span of a species, the resulting number would be depressing low. However, once a bird survives the first year, it can expect a longer life. If you take all the early deaths into consideration you might say the average robin lives less than two year. However, if you only consider those robins that have survive adolescence, they may have a remaining life expectancy of 5-8 years.
A bird’s life span also depends on various factors. Bigger birds tends to live longer than smaller birds. Tropical species survive better than temperate zone species and seabirds survive better than land birds.
Bigger is Better
A typical sparrow-size bird might live 4-6 years. A slightly larger bird, such as a robin, may live an additional 2-3 years. Crow-size birds live even longer. Hawks, eagles, swans and other large birds may live 20-25 years. Parrots are legendary for outliving their owners. In general, bigger is better.
Old Time Stories
The Guinness Book of Animal Records credits a Siberian white crane as having the longest recorded lifespan at 82 years, although this record is not well documented.
Some long lives are well documented. Albatross are among the largest birds with wingspans of over 11 feet. So it is not surprising that currently the oldest known living bird is a female Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. She is at least 63 years old, maybe older. We can be reasonable certain of her age. Chandler Robbins, a well-known wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey, banded her on Midway Atoll, a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, in December 1956. Although we are not sure how old she was at that time, it was estimated that she was maybe 4-5 years old. Robbins captured Wisdom again over 40 years later. And other scientists continue to observe her regularly. Her ID band has been replaced five times.
Albatross return annually to their home island to bred, laying a single egg. In Feburary 2014, Wisdom returned again to Midway Atoll at the age of 63. Even more remarkable than her advanced age, she laid and incubated her single egg raising yet another albatross chick. That also puts her in the ranks of the oldest mothers in the animal world. Imagine how many children, grand-children, great grand-children, and great-great, grand-children would be in Wisdom’s family photograph.
The USGS estimates that in her lifetime Wisdom has flown more than 3 million miles, the equivalent of over 5 round trips to the moon.
Another story that illustrates the longevity of larger birds involves von Humboldt’s parrot. Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian-born naturalist, explorer and promoter. In the early 1800s he led expeditions to unexplored regions of the Amazon jungle. On one journey he stumbled upon a never-before-seen native tribe, called the Atures, in a remote area of the jungle. The tribe was previously unknown and isolated, not only from the outside world, but even from neighboring tribes. Obviously they had never seen a European before. The tribe had its own unique verbal language, but no written language. Despite the communication difficulties Von Humboldt and the tribal chief hit it off. When it became time for the expedition to move on, the chief gave Von Humboldt his pet parrot which was fluent in the tribal language.
Unfortunately, the explorers may have passed on a fatal disease to the natives and within a few years the entire tribe eventually died off. As a result their unique verbal language was lost to the world. Except for the parrot which, by default, then became the only being in the world to speak their language. After returning to Germany, Von Humboldt, emulating PT Barnum, toured Europe for several years promoting the oddities he discovered on his Amazon expeditions including the only parrot in the world who could speak an extinct language. Audiences were fascinated.
In the late 1970s Robert Blake starred in popular television detective series called Beretta. His character, Tony Baretta, had a pet sulphur-crested cockatoo named Fred. This species is known for longevity and there are reports on the internet that claim Fred lived to ripe old age of 83. This can’t be verify because in the 1990 Fred was kidnapped (or birdnapped) from the San Diego Wildlife Park where he had been performing.
Maximum vs. Average Lifespan
A long life for one individual does not mean other individuals of that species will live just as long. Recent news reports covered the birthday party for the oldest living man in the US who was turning 105. Yet the average life expectancy of all men is closer to 70 years. Extremes happen but are not representative of the whole.
For example, Stamford University reported on 1746 Purple Finches that were captured, banded and released to the wild and then recaptured again. 1731 of the recaptured finches had initially been banded sometime during the previous 6 years. Only one of the recaptured individuals had been banded over 10 years earlier. So how would you define the life span of these finches? 10 years? Or 6 years?
Large birds do live longer lives. At the opposite extreme are the small birds. Tiny hummingbirds do have a much shorter lifespan than an albatross, but not extremely short. The average hummingbird may live 3-5 years. The record for a ruby-throated hummingbird in the wild is 6 years, 11 months. In its long life this tiny bird weighing less than a dime made 14 migrations trips of 2000 miles or more. The longest lived hummingbird was a larger Broad-tail hummingbird that lived 12 years in the wild.
If someone asks you how long a bird lives, remember the answer is “it depends.” Are they asking about the maximum lifespan, the average lifespan, in captivity or in the wild, big bird or little birds? The answer depends and the factors that impact longevity make interest trivia.