Bird Lifespan: How Long Do Wild Birds Live?

From those in captivity to the feathered friends at your feeders, learn how long birds live, and what factors affect their survival.

mountain bluebirdCourtesy Lyn Christoffer
Adult mountain bluebird

The birds in our gardens or local parks can feel like old friends after a while. It may seem as if we’re seeing the same individuals year after year—and that may be true because often they stay faithful to their home territory. But it can lead us to wonder: How long do birds live? That question can be surprisingly hard to answer.

How Long Do Birds Live in Captivity?

250997517 1 Renee Herman Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Renee Herman
Blue-and-yellow macaw in a Kentucky zoo

After a bird reaches its adult plumage, it’s impossible to tell how old it is just by looking at it. But some zoos and aviaries keep records of individual birds, which means we can track their ages.

One example: A pink cockatoo (a type of Australian parrot) arrived at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago in 1934. When he died in 2016, he was at least 83 years old. It’s also been claimed that some other parrots, especially large ones like cockatoos and macaws, have reached over 100 years old. Some probably have, but it’s difficult to be sure without complete documentation.

Birds in good zoos, protected from predators and with access to veterinary care, may live longer than those in the wild. Aside from large parrots, some other zoo birds that have lived more than 60 years include flamingos and Andean condors.

How Long Do Birds Live in the Wild?

Laysan Albatross (phoebastria Immutabilis), how long do birds liveENRIQUE AGUIRRE AVES/GETTY IMAGES
Laysan albatrosses

Most of what we know about life spans of wild birds comes from banding studies. A numbered band placed on a bird’s leg makes it possible to identify the bird. Currently, the oldest known wild bird is Wisdom, a banded Laysan albatross that returns every year to her nest on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. Even though she’s more than 70 years old, she has continued to raise young in recent years.

Banding records tell us of other birds with long life spans in the wild. Sandhill cranes and bald eagles can live more than 35 years. Canada geese, Atlantic puffins and some large gulls might reach more than 30 years old. Mallards, great horned owls and mourning doves can live longer than 25 years.

For most small songbirds, the maximum known life spans are between eight and 15 years. But the average life spans for all these birds are shorter than the all-time records.

How long do hummingbirds live?

Does Bird Size Affect Lifespan?

Nesting Bald Eagles, how long do birds liveMARK NEWMAN/GETTY IMAGES
Larger birds, such as bald eagles, generally raise fewer broods per year than songbirds.

As shown by these examples, bigger birds tend to live the longest. But there are exceptions. Birds like grouse and pheasants that live on the ground tend to have shorter life spans. Wild turkeys, weighing up to 20 pounds, seldom live much longer than 10 years, and the same is true for tiny hummingbirds.

Long-lived birds often reproduce very slowly. A pair of albatrosses or condors will raise no more than one chick every one or two years, so the adults have to live a long time to leave enough offspring to maintain their populations.

By contrast, many small songbirds raise two or three broods yearly, laying four or five eggs in every clutch. While the birds in our gardens and at our feeders may live only a few years, their descendants will keep us company for a long time in the future.

Find out what types of birds mate for life.

How to Help Birds Live Longer

251865571 1 Ryan Terry Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Ryan Terry
American robin fledgling

The most dangerous time in the lives of many songbirds is just after they leave the nest. You can make a space for these vulnerable fledglings by planting dense low shrubs, avoiding using lawn chemicals and not allowing house cats to roam outdoors.

If you see a baby bird on the ground, it’s best to stay back and leave it alone; the parent birds are probably nearby.

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Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.