As there are something like 10,000 different species, the answer, not surprisingly, is “it depends.” First, it’s hard to get a good answer on birds in nature, because they don’t have birth certificates. You need to tag them and track them over a number of years to discover the answer. Birds in captivity are easier to follow, but their longevity can be impacted by many things. They may live longer due to a lack of risk factors; they may die earlier because they are stressed by being held captive.
Just like infant mortality is often measured separately for humans, the first year of life for a bird is especially dangerous. Eggs, hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings all lack the ability and the experience to protect themselves. Before they can fly, they are the prey of the many – raccoons, other birds, their fellow nestlings (who push them out of the nest) and especially cats. Those who can fly may still make fatal mistakes in their first year. After that, however, lifespan can be measured differently.
Now let’s start by considering different species. Bird lovers are especially excited by “Wisdom” a 70-year-old Laysan albatross who nests on one of the Midway islands. She recently became a mother again. (Note that a bit of research published in 1988 shows that back then the longest-lived Laysan albatross was 37 years and 5 months – evidence that these sort of projects take years and needs to be followed for generations.)
The birds in the Parrot family are longer-lived than many. In captivity they can live between 40-60 years. Alex (named for Animal Learning EXperiment) was a grey parrot who lived “only” to the age of 31. His last words, the night before he died, to his trainer were “You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.”
Smaller birds live shorter lives than larger birds. Hummingbirds in the wild tend to live between 3 to 5 years. I have often wondered about hummingbirds, and if the passage of time is somehow “variable” to them. I have only seen them during the day, when they seem to be living a sort of accelerated life, their wings flapping so hard that they hover and hum. It’s almost as if they’re on speed, which, I suppose, if you’re living off of little insects (they do consume these) and sugar water (nectar), is how you would react. On the other wing, at night, when the temperatures drop, so do they, going into torpor, in which their bodies slow down in order to conserve energy.
The common ostrich, one of the largest birds, has a lifespan of 40 to 45 years. The eggs are vulnerable, of course, but they are guarded by the community. A scrape (the “nest” but it is really just a scrape in the ground) will contain about twenty eggs, with the dominant female laying first and the other females laying afterwards. The eggs are incubated by the females during the day and the males during the day. And, if you are a human wanting an ostrich for a meal, you’ll only want one – and you’ll have to have a party when you crack it open, as one egg weighs 3.1 pounds.
What about all the other birds, the regular birds, the normal birds? The European robin has an expected lifespan of 1.1 years, but once you take out the first year, when mortality is so high, they live about 19 years. The longest-living American robin (that is known) is about 14 years in the wild.
Besides the threats in the first year that are true of nearly every species, some things kill birds en masse. Penguin chicks have died of starvation. West Nile virus has been terrible for some species of birds (crows, magpies and jays). Some migratory birds have died of starvation, while others have hit buildings.
The number of birds in North America has dropped by billions over the last five decades. Humans are happier when we see birds. Birds are also the canaries in the coal mine, letting us know when conditions are dangerous. And of course, birds, as the descendants of dinosaurs, are just plain cool. We need for them to stay alive, so let us all Live Long and Prosper.
Abner’s voice was raspy, and when he hopped into the sunlight, Sol saw that his feet were gnarled; his plumage, instead of the glossy black of most adult crows, was faded; some of the feathers at his neck were almost white. But the old crow’s eyes were still bright and dark and they twinkled as he surveyed the four young birds. “Your parents are the most successful breeders in the region,” Abner croaked. “Bet you didn’t know that, did you?” Hunters of the Feather