What’s the lifespan of a ruby-throated hummingbird?
How long can a bluejay live? A crow? Cardinal?
What lives longer - a grackle or a broad-winged hawk?
Some of the answers are surprising when you take a look at the list of migratory bird longevity records compiled by the U.S. Geologicial Survey’s Bird Banding Lab.
The list includes the ages of banded birds dating back six decades and shows some clear patterns.
First, the bigger the bird, the older it lives, generally. The oldest bird I could find on the list was a Laysan albatross that reached 63 years of age. It was banded in 1956 and last encountered on Feb. 4 of this year. There are two other Laysan albatross’ on the list that hit the 60-year mark and they were all encountered alive, which means those records are likely growing.
We’ll never see a Laysan albatross here in Pennsylvania, however, as the seabird breeds in Hawaii and spends the rest of its time anywhere from Japan to the Bering Sea.
What about closer to home? How long do the birds that are frequent visitors to our backyards, fields and woods live?
Let’s start with a few birds whose appearance everyone anticipates as a sign of spring. The American robin is a common, and welcome sight in late March. The oldest living banded robin, according to the list made it to 13 years and 11 months when it was found dead in 1975.
Eastern bluebirds flying above open fields are also another welcome sight of spring, and the oldest on on the list was 10 years and six months of age. It was banded in New York in 1989 and found dead in South Carolina in November 1999.
I’m partial to red-winged blackbirds, which are a fixture in agricultural settings, and was surprised to see that one lived to just three months shy of 16 years old.
Speaking of blackbirds, the common grackle apparently can live to a ripe old age. There are three on the list that topped 20 years, including one that made it past 23. That beats the broad-winged hawk, the oldest of which lived to 18 years and four months, according to the list.
Speaking of hawks and raptors, most can reach ages of two decades or more. The larger hawks have the advantage here.
An injured red-tailed hawk found in Michigan in 2011 was more than 30 years old, based on banding records. Four others reached 25 years or more, including one that was banded in Pennsylvania on Oct. 21, 1972 and caught alive during another banding operation in New Jersey on Nov. 12, 1994.
The medium-sized red-shouldered hawk has lived to two months shy of 26 years, according to banding records, while a Cooper’s hawk topped the 20-year mark by four months.
The smaller hawks and falcons don’t enjoy such longevity. The oldest sharp-shinned just topped 12 years, the oldest banded merlin was a month shy of 12 years while an American kestrel reached 14 years, eight months.
Taking a step up in size, several bald eagles topped 30 years, great blue herons exceeded 20 years as did several ospreys.
Getting back to the species at the top:
Ruby-throated hummingbird - 9 years
Bluejay - 16 years, 6 months
Crow - 16 years, 4 months
Cardinal - 15 years, 9 months (Banded in Pennsylvania in 1956 and found dead in 1971)
The group of birds that have been banded most are passerines, which includes songbirds (33 million bandings) and ducks (12.2 million bandings).
The records on the longevity list make for some interesting reading and are one example of how important the bird banding program is. In addition to age data, banded birds provide data on migration, population and the impacts of disease and natural hazards. From 1960 to 2011, the lab has received more than 64 million banding reports, and there’s no telling how many more longevity records will continue to be broken.