birdnote q&a: how long do birds live, and do they really mate for life?

800px-Laysan_Albatross_RWD2THE FOURTH INSTALLMENT in my series of answers to your bird questions centers on bird lifestyles: Do birds really mate for life, and how long do they live? Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show, will once again be our guide for exploring what’s going on as we look skyward.

Before we get started, the BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute, seven-day-a-week public-radio “interstitial” (short program) that recently caught my ear. I asked BirdNote to help answer the recent questions you had asked me. (In case you missed installment 1, we tackled How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter? Week 2 was about birds on the move: the miracle of hummingbird migration, and on flying in formation. Week 3: on daring behavior, such as when a mob of small birds chase after a bigger one, or a woodpecker drums on my house.)

Parts of Ellen’s answers below are in 2-minute audio clips to stream (all in the green links–or you can read the transcripts at those links if you prefer):

Q. How long do birds live? Can you give some examples that hint at their lifespans?

A. According to Roger Lederer, retired professor of Biological Sciences at California State University, Chico: “Albatrosses, terns, penguins and some other seabirds seem to live 30-50 years, eagles 20-25 years, hawks 8-20 years. Most songbirds might live 8-12 years, hummingbirds 6-8 years, and warblers 3-6 years. Some individual records of known longevity of wild birds are: American Crow 15 years, American Robin 12 years, Barn Swallow 16 years, American Coot 19 years, Golden Eagle 25 years, House Sparrow 13 years, Osprey 32 years, European Starling 20 years, Cedar Waxwing 13 years, and Wild Turkey 15 years.”

Wisdom, the famous female Laysan albatross nesting on Midway Island, Hawaii, is at least 60 years old! (That’s a Laysan albatross in flight, top photo.)

Closer, perhaps, to your home: How long does a robin live is in this archived BirdNote, and the answer to the question “Is it the same robin?” (something you may have asked when a bird uses the same spot to nest as one did last year) is covered here.

Q. Legends and literary lore notwithstanding, do any species of birds really mate for life?

A. For smaller birds, staying in touch with each other through the fall and winter is difficult, and many find new mates each spring. Many migratory birds hook up with the same mate only because they return to the same territory (not because they literally stayed together the whole time).

But large birds that do not migrate, for example many hawks, eagles, and ravens, have large territories and thus few contacts with the opposite sex. Maintaining a relationship through the winter may assure breeding in the next season.

Still, things can go awry–nests fail, a mate falls short at providing food to the family, etc.–and one of the birds may go in search of a new mate. And contrary to the fairy tales, a bird will not languish to its death over the loss of a mate.

next week’s topic, and how to get birdnote

birdnote logoNEXT WEEK’S ANSWERS from among the most popular of 150-plus questions you asked me recently will be about how birds of prey find their targets–what senses do they use to catch their supper?

If you have other bird questions, you may find them in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station why they don’t carry it.

(Laysan albatross photo by Dick Daniels from Wikipedia.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    Wow, I didn’t realize the long life spans of these birds, especially hummingbirds. I would have thought their lives to be shorter. I’ll have to remember the eagles along the river could be up to 20 years old! I hope my Robin returns again this year.

  2. Anne Thompson says:

    For all readers who love birds, please read the WSJ’s February 2, 2013, article on A13. It states that on Jan 15, 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the New Era Wind Farm might kill as many as 14 bald eagles per year. Despite that toll, the agency said the developer of the 48 turbine wind farm could go ahead and apply for an eagle kill permit. Under this proposal, the federal government plans to allow wind turbines to kill bald eagles for 30 years. What a sad commentary on our Federal Government!

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