For the Birds Radio Program: Manx Shearwater

Original Air Date: April 19, 2002 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 11, 2014; Aug. 14, 2007; July 11, 2006; Aug. 31, 2005; March 29, 2005

Now that Laura is 50, she’s wondering how many birds are that old. One Manx Shearwater who has traveled over a million miles during her 50-year life.

Duration: 4′45″


Now that I’m 50 years old, I find myself searching for evidence of wild birds that are my contemporaries. Chickadees live surprisingly long for such tiny birds, but the oldest one on record survived only 12 years and 5 months. The oldest known wild Blue Jay lived to be only 17 years 6 months, and the oldest known Ruby-throated Hummingbird lived only 9 years 1 month. Even the oldest wild Bald Eagle known to ornithology lived only 29 years 7 months. Birds in the Northland are given far fewer decades than we humans.

But this month I got some gratifying news. On April 4, 2002, bird handers netted a seabird called a Manx Shearwater on an island off the coast of Wales, and when they untangled it from the net, they discovered that it was sporting a leg band. The bird had originally been banded as a breeding adult on May 22,1957-the spring before I started first grade. Because it was an adult, handers realized at the time that it must have been hatched in 1952 or earlier, which would make it at least 50 years old this spring.

The same individual bird has been caught twice in addition to the first and last times–on July 8, 1961 and April 16, 1977, also on its breeding grounds. So this bird, hatched during the last months of the Truman administration, has been cruising about the ocean between the British Isles and the South Atlantic seas, spending most of her life far from land and human worries, digging a burrow for her nest, so even during the breeding season she can keep her head in a hole in the ground ignoring the human world. She’s taken no note of the Korean or Vietnam Wars, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Iran-Contra indictments and convictions, the Starr report, the horrifying events of September 11, 2001, or the terrifying escalation of violence in the Middle East. The worst event in human history that she might have witnessed was the war in the Falkland Islands, but since that happened during spring and early summer of 1982, she was most likely hiding out in her north Atlantic island burrow right then. Perhaps it’s because she isn’t burdened with our human worries that despite her five decades of life, she’ s still optimistically laying eggs and raising babies.

Manx Shearwaters spend most of their lives on the wing over the ocean, only coming ashore for the breeding season, and doing all their hunting on the wing. Ornithologists calculate that during this 50-year life, this bird has thus far traveled over 500,000 miles during its migratory flights, and altogether about 5 MILLION miles including its day-to­ day peregrinations for food. A shearwater’s long, narrow wings are perfect for effortless flight over large expanses of water, so at least the bird hasn’t flapped millions of times in order to clock all those miles. I’ve never seen a Manx Shearwater, but I have seen five closely-related species. Their wings are longer and more delicate than gull wings, and the birds sail delicately but surely on ocean breezes, making flight seem effortless and joyful. They’re virtually impossible to catch on the wing-it’s only when they come to land to breed that scientists can catch them for banding. It’s nothing short of a miracle that this one individual bird has been caught four times during her long life, nothing short of a miracle that a 14-ounce bird has survived five decades on this beautiful, complex, heartbreakingly dangerous yet life-sustaining planet, bearing witness to the lovely, simple values of home and hearth and the thrilling joy of facing nature on her own terms.