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Bands pinpoint oldest of birds

An "ancient" female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, caught and banded by Allen Chartier, proved to be eight years, one month of age. Photo courtesy Allen Chartier.


Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jim McCormac

I recently received an email from Allen Chartier, a hummingbird expert who lives in Michigan, bearing news of an old bird. He had captured a ruby-throated hummingbird in his home state that proved to be 9 years, 1 month old — the oldest ruby-throat on record.

Chartier had caught the bird in 2006 — it was already an adult — and placed a tiny metal band with unique coding on its leg.

Hummingbirds typically burn up quickly. Most chicks don’t survive their first year, and of those that do, a life span of a few years is probably the norm.

Chartier’s bird was a Methuselah among hummingbirds and has made many journeys to Central America, where ruby-throated hummingbirds spend winter. Chartier estimates that the nickel-weight bird has traveled more than 36,000 miles, and she isn’t done yet.

Two days after capturing the bird, Chartier caught another female that was 8 years, 1 month old.

The science of bird banding — placing metal rings on the banded bird’s leg — provides much of the data regarding bird longevity. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory oversees bird banders and keeps records. Thanks to its workers, we have a much better idea of how long wild birds live.

Most songbirds don’t survive their first year. Only about 25 percent of American robin fledglings survive until November the year they hatch. Those that live longer can expect to last about 1.7 years. Thus, a robin in California that lived to be 13 years, 11 months, defied all odds.

One of the oldest birds ever documented was a Canada goose right here in Ohio. It lived to be
33 years, 3 months.

That pales in comparison with the true ancients of the bird world: the albatrosses. A female Laysan albatross dubbed Wisdom was first banded as an adult on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1956. She still returns to nest and successfully fledge chicks. Wisdom is at least 63 years old.

Wild birds face a life fraught with peril: predators galore, brutal weather, diseases, parasites, and man-made threats including tall buildings and vehicles.

The oldest known wild orchard oriole lived to be 10 years, 11 months. A female of the same species, found injured as a fledgling, was kept captive and free from the usual threats by Ohio artist Julie Zickefoose. It survived to 17 years of age.

Many longevity records derive from birds that were banded or recovered in Ohio, including the following:

• Great horned owl: 28 years

• Tundra swan: 25 years, 3 months

• Great egret: 22 years, 10 months

• Blue jay: 17 years, 6 months

• Turkey vulture: 16 years, 10 months

• Barn owl: 15 years, 5 months

• Chimney swift: 14 years

• Indigo bunting: 13 years, 3 months

• Common nighthawk: 9 years

• Cape May warbler: 4 years, 3 months

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at


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