At 11, the Methuselah of chickadees

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2011 - 9:06 PM

Laying claim to being the oldest of his species, the plucky little bird found near Pillager, Minn., has defied the survival odds.

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The Pillager chickadee was, as of Thursday, 11 years and six months old.

Photo: Courtesy of Michael North,

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Minnesota now can claim to be home to the world's oldest chickadee. But don't credit the bracing northern air.

"I think it has a lot of luck and a lot of skill," said Michael North, a veteran licensed bird bander who captured the aged but still frisky bird in a large net near his home east of Pillager, in central Minnesota, twice this month. "It's probably a dominant bird, and is getting access to the best resources. It's a numbers game, too. Just by chance some birds are going to live longer than others."

Thursday was the sixth time North has held the same bird since he first placed a small ID band on its leg in May 2002, when he estimated it was two years old. He hadn't seen it since January 2010, nearly two years ago, but when it showed up this month, it had outlived the previously-oldest black-capped chickadee in U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) records. That bird was last seen in Massachusetts in 1980, when it was 11 years and two months old. The Pillager chickadee was, as of Thursday, 11 years and six months old.

Chickadees are among the most common and delightful year-round residents of Minnesota, identifiable by their buzzing chatter and two-tone song, as well as by their sharp, black, white and tan outfits. They are common visitors to backyard bird feeders. North said chickadees aren't believed to roam very far, which is why he's able to keep catching the same bird.

But like all songbirds, they are susceptible to the many hazards around them: windows, cars, cats, starvation, bad weather and bigger birds, just to name a few. New birds can expect to live only about three years, if they survive the first one, which less than half do. That would make the male bird North has documented roughly 289 in chickadee years.

"Life for a bird is so darned hard," said Val Cunningham, a St. Paul bird surveyor who writes a column on birds for the Star Tribune. "Chickadees are smart and resilient and tough and resourceful, but there's just so much hazard in the world for birds. For this guy to live that long, it's just jaw-dropping."

North, who also supervises bird-banding by various groups, tracks a wide variety of birds. He's currently involved in attaching radio and global-position devices to purple martins to track their movements.

Finding the oldest chickadee on record doesn't mean there aren't older ones that haven't been banded, North said. Indeed, ornithological research shows that a bird scholar at Cornell University documented a chickadee more than 12 years old, but that finding was evidently never reported to the USGS, so it's unofficial.

As for this one, now back in the wild where the Crow Wing and Gull Rivers meet, its future is as uncertain as any bird's. "I hope it survives the winter, and comes back next year," North said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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