For the Birds Radio Program: Sixteen Years

Original Air Date: Dec. 10, 1999

Not many birds make it to 16, but Laura’s daughter Katie has.

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A lot can happen in sixteen years. It’s longer than the lifespan of most birds. The oldest banded Blue Jay survived 17 years 6 months, and the oldest Steller’s Jay 16 years and 1 month. You’d think that their bigger relatives the crows and ravens would live even longer, but not so! The oldest known raven lived only 13 years 4 months, and the oldest crow 14 years 7 months.

Although a Broad-tailed Hummingbird was caught live when over 12 years old, its close relative the Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a longevity record of only 9 years 1 month. At least one Black-capped Chickadee survived 12 years 5 months, but as with most birds, most chickadees die their first year. The ones that do get through that critical year have developed skills that help them survive for many years, but dangers press in on all sides, and eventually they succumb to disease, weather, predators, or accidents. But a chickadee that survives 12 years has gone through 11 breeding cycles, raising 5 to 7 babies in each nesting, so it may have raised over 75 babies! Chickadees sometimes choose the same mate several years in a row, but chances are they’ll face at least one or two changes in mate over the years, and a particularly long-lived one may see 5 or 6 mates. Chickadees pack a lot of living into their years.

The birds with the longest lives live on the ocean. Of the top ten longevity records in North America, the first nine all belong to oceanic birds. First place goes to the Laysan Albatross, with one banded bird surviving 42 years and 5 months. The Black-footed Albatross is in second place, with one surviving 40 ears, 8 months. Two other albatrosses are also in the top ten, the Wandering Albatross and Black-browed Albatross, both living into their 30s. The White Tern is Number 3 on the list, with a 35-year record, and since one good tern deserves another, the Number 4 spot goes to the Sooty Tern, also living 35 years. The Arctic Tern is also among the Top Ten, one living at least 34 years, which is especially amazing when you consider that during each of those 34 years it flew a longer distance than the circumference of the globe.

Every bird in the Top Ten is an albatross or a tern until we come to Number 7, the Magnificent Frigatebird, and Number 9, the Atlantic Puffin. And with Number 10, we finally reach the only land bird on the Top Ten list. I would have guessed it was an eagle or owl, or at least a raven, but the land bird with the longest life is a bird I’d have never expected: a Mourning Dove. This species is shot at in most states. Even though we don’t have a season in Wisconsin or Minnesota, the Mourning Dove is the most hunted game bird in the country, and in my experience, its IQ is about on the level with a rutabaga. But brains aren’t everything, so one banded Mourning Dove has survived 31 years 4 months.

Most of us humans are given many more years than birds. In the time that a bird lives out its entire life and sees its great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren be born, most of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. One person facing that decision right now is a little girl—no, a young woman—named Katie. She was born on a blizzardy morning exactly 16 years ago today, and has brought as much sunlight and joy into my life as the sparkliest Blue Jay. She can do a drum roll faster than the speediest woodpecker, play Chopin as delicately and quickly as the finest Winter Wren singing, and make me smile as easily as the most endearing little chickadee. With people like Katie as the driving force, the next century will bring more peace and beauty to this lovely planet than it’s seen in many a day. A long life to her!