For the Birds Radio Program: Birthday 2001

Original Air Date: Nov. 12, 2001 Rerun Dates: Nov. 3, 2004; Nov. 18, 2003; Nov. 15, 2002

Are we really getting older, or simply upgrading our system? Laura talks about the longest living wild birds.

Duration: 4′52″


Every person has a birthday every year. It used to seem to me that on each birthday I got older, but thanks to my computer, I now realize that the truth is, I’m simply upgrading the system. So on November 11, I upgraded to Laura Version 5.0. I don’t know if this will be an improvement or not-the idea with upgrading software is that you get new features and take more of the bugs out with each upgrade. I’m not entirely sure my software is actually improving, but I do know that my hard drive is in serious need of defragging and erasing some useless old files. But regardless, I feel pretty damed lucky to be reaching the big five-oh. My sister, three years younger than me, has had a recurrence of breast cancer and we’ll feel blessed indeed if she reaches fifty, so I’m hardly going to complain about getting older.

I’ve already outlived the oldest wild, banded birds in America by a long shot. The oldest wild bird ever to be recorded in the United States was a Laysan Albatross (a species that nests on Hawaii) that lived to be 42 years 5 months old. Second place in the wild bird longevity contest is another albatross-a Black-footed Albatross that survived for 40 years 8 months. Third place goes to another oceanic bird, the White Tern, which lived 35 years 11 months. I think the reason ocean birds are so prominent on this list is that the islands where they nest have so few natural predators-the top nine species are all ocean birds. Fourth place goes to the Sooty Tern that lived 35 years 10 months. Then comes the Great Frigatebird at 35 years 08 months, the Wandering Albatross that lived 34 years 7 months, the Arctic Tern - 34 years, the Black-browed Albatross that made it 32 years 5 months, and finally, the adorable little Atlantic Puffin that lived 31 years 11 months.

It isn’t until tenth place that we reach a bird that spends its life on land. I sort of expected the longest living land bird to be an eagle, crane, or raven, or something like that, but the winner of the longest-surviving landbird goes to the same species that is also a record-maker as the most hunted species in North America, the Mourning Dove-one banded wild dove lived 31 years 4 months. The oldest Bald Eagle wasn’t too far behind at 29 years 07 months. And the oldest crane, the symbol of longevity for the Japanese, was a Sandhill Crane that survived 29 years 3 months. But the oldest wild raven on record lived only 13 years 04 months, less than Nature’s Perfect Bird, the Blue Jay-one wild jay lived to be 17 years 6 months.

Black-capped Chickadees have survived 12 years 05 months. Although a chickadee’s brain is only a tiny part of their third-of-an-ounce body, it doesn’t need to worry about wasting valuable brain space on obsolete memories. Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees turn off any brain neurons that are tied to memories that are no longer useful, and they grow new ones. I rather wish I could do that-I have a lot of outdated telephone numbers and old TV commercial jingles taking up valuable brain space. Chickadees get to renew their minds every fall, while my poor brain is 37 years and 7 months older than the oldest chickadee and still operating with its original neurons. No wonder we humans seem so cynical and jaded, while for chickadees everything seems fresh and new and exciting. But I start my third quarter of a century on a lovely morning. These are uncertain times, but no matter what, there will always be birds to bring us hope and cheer, even on the morning when we find ourselves over the hill.