WHIDBEY BIRDING | Life is tough and risky in the wild, with few chances to reach ‘old age’


There is no beating around the bush. I’ll just come out and announce that I’m turning 65 on July 2. Whew! That was harder than I expected, but not as difficult as figuring out the Medicare options.

The worst thing about another milestone birthday is the tiresome jokes like, “65 isn’t old — for a tree!” or “Well, it beats the alternative.” Those stopped being funny about 20 years ago.

Recently, a friend handed me a magazine with a couple articles about the longevity of birds and animals. I can’t say that reading the articles made me feel any younger, but I found it interesting. And I’m often asked how long a certain bird species will live.

We think of birds as fragile creatures, vulnerable and short-lived.

In the wild, life is tough and few birds die of old age. They run the same gamut of risks year in and year out until they are killed.

Songbirds have a hard time even getting through the first year, since they are prey to larger birds, susceptible to migration dangers and are inexperienced at finding food.

Generally, larger birds live longer. For example, the average life expectancy for a songbird is only 10 months and the average for a bald eagle is 10 to 12 years.

It stands to reason that some captive birds, live longer than wild birds often up to twice as long. The oldest captive parrot lived to age 98. But this isn’t always the case. Starlings, those terrors of the avian world, live longer in the wild than in captivity.

It’s also more difficult to know the ages of wild birds. Ornithologists rely on banding and recapturing to learn their ages. The most reliable banding records come when the young are banded in the nest and then recaptured years later, hopefully near the end of their lives.

Serious banding of many species didn’t begin until the 1950s, so there is little data on some of the longest-lived birds. The longevity records that we have are more accurate on birds that are banded in larger numbers.

I was curious to know what individual wild birds lived the longest. Who were the Methuselahs of the avian world?

Last fall in Wisconsin the oldest known bald eagle was recorded. He is still thriving at 31 years old. Earlier this year in Denmark the world’s oldest mute swan was found dead at 40 years.

In 2005, news broke that the Brits had found the oldest known wild bird. A Manx Shearwater, called Manxie, was found aged between 52 and 55 years. This surprised me, since this species is only 13 inches long, about the size of a city pigeon.

Manxie and her shearwater buddies are wide-ranging sea birds that breed in Wales and migrate to the coast of South America during the winter. She’s estimated to have already flown up to 5 million miles during her lifetime.

Manxie’s longevity keeps me heading to the gym.

Recently, Manxie’s record was broken by a 57-year-old female Layson Albatross found on Hawaii’s Midway Atoll. Albatrosses have about the same length and wingspan as bald eagles, so I wasn’t as surprised as I was with the shearwater.

The female albatross has been dubbed “Wisdom,” a name that honors elderhood and warms my heart. I thank whoever chose it over other possibilities such as “Ole Lazy” or “Aging Albie.”

Wisdom was found incubating a chick and looking as spry as ever. The scientist who examined her could find nothing old about her. Wow, so much for frail and vulnerable.

The magazine the friend loaned me went on to talk about the longevity of mammals, particularly whales. The record for orca and blue whales is 90 years. A fin whale lived to be 100.

I finally stopped feeling old when I read that the oldest recorded bowhead whale lived to be 211 years.

Yet, I still don’t want to hear, “65 isn’t old — for a bowhead.”

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