How long do wild birds live? It is a question I am often asked.

The general answer, for songbirds, is four or five years — if the bird survives its first year of life.

Until we began banding birds methodically in the 1950s, our only information on their ages came from captive birds. All wild native birds are now protected by federal law. It is illegal to keep them in captivity except for scientific study. Cardinals were popular cage birds until well into the 20th century. A caged northern cardinal lived 28 ½ years. In the wild, the extreme upper longevity record is 15 years, 9 months. A captive bald eagle lived more than 48 years; the record in the wild: 38.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird in West Virginia was recaptured after wearing a band for 9 years and 2 months, and then released. A male ruby-throat banded at Oklahoma City, Okla., in August 1964 was recaptured at the same location five years later, so no doubt the hummingbirds we see in our Minnesota yards are birds that were there several summers before.

Listed below are a few banding reports. These are longevity records from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

House wren: Re-trapped and released in New York at 9 years.

Eastern bluebird: Banded in New York, found dead in South Carolina at 10 years, 6 months.

Black-capped chickadee: 11 years, 2 months, caught and released in Minnesota.

Baltimore oriole: 12 years, found dead in Minnesota.

Common loon: 29 years, 10 months, alive and released.

Canada goose: 33 years, 3 months.


Jim Gilbert has worked as a naturalist for 50 years.