Thursday 28 November 2013


Fernando, a Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) of French origin seen at Santa Amalia (Badajoz) in March 2013 was over 33 years old, the oldest wild bird ever recorded Extremadura, according to the SEO-Cáceres/GOCE database. Photo by Fernando Yuste

This post has been ready for publication for several weeks. However, just by chance new information about longevity in birds has been arriving, meaning that we have incorporated this to make a post a little longer than usual, and hopefully even more interesting. It is likely that our information is incomplete, representing as it does recently available information gathered by a small group of enthusiasts. If someone has sightings in Extremadura of older birds and would like to share their news, we would be delighted to publish it here. None of this information would have been available at all without the work of bird ringers and those birders who patiently read the codes on rings and send the information through. To all of those, a big thank you.

Ringing does not only help the study of the movements of birds, but also provides information of great value about various aspects of biology. How long a bird can live, in other words its longevity, is one of these. For this we have searched the modest but growing ringing database of GOCE in order to determine the oldest birds that we have seen in Extremadura, and then comparing this with data published at both a European and global scale, some of which may not be wholly reliable (EuringHAGR).

The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus). Ring Y[HIF]. Named "Fernando". A male ringed in the Camargue (France) on 3rd August 1979 and seen on the rice fields of Santa Amalia (Badajoz) by Fernando Yuste and Isaac Outón on 17th March 2013, in its 35th calendar year and  33 years, 7 months and 14 days since being ringed. It is, by far, the oldest bird that has been seen in Extremadura, as far as we know. During its lifetime, it has been seen many times, so many observations in fact that it could fill four pages of notes. We know that it has bred in its place of origin in the Camargue (1987, 1991, 1992 and 2009) as well as in the colony near Malaga of Fuente de Piedra (1988, 1990, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006). It has also been seen in the Ebro Delta, Doñana and the Villacañas lagoon (Toledo). It has only been seen once in Extremadura, as recorded above [see video]. Our data also include a record of a female Greater Flamingo seen at La Albuera in September 2013 in its 18th calendar year (José A. Román). Ringing of flamingos started in France in 1977 and there are still birds alive today from that period, with 35 years of age, although the maximum age given in Euring is 27 years. Flamingos are long-lived birds, with birds in captivity easily exceeding 60 years and the author once saw in Almeria a group of five ringed flamingos with ages of 18, 18, 18, 22 and 23 years.

Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia). Rings W[D] / W[S]a. This bird was marked as a nestling in Holland on 11th June 1988 and seen at Portaje Reservoir (Cáceres) by Sergio Mayordomo on 25 September 2012 in its 25th calendar year having passed 24 years and 3.5 months since being ringed. It is a male that had lost one of its rings, as can be seen in the photo, and thus could not be identified between 1994 and 2002. During its first two years there were sightings in the United Kingdom (from 12-10 to 18-11-08 and from 26-06 to 20-09-89), Algarve, Portugal (15 and 19-10-89) and Doñana (8 to 15-03-90), and in Holland on 16-07-90. Afterwards it was seen during several years in Huelva on autumn migration, once in December and in Holland during the breeding season. The only sighting in Extremadura is the Portaje Reservoir record. In our region, Spoonbills of 18 and 19 years old have been seen. We have not found information about the oldest wild Spoonbill in Europe, but in captivity one reached 30 years and in America other species of spoonbills have reached 28 years in the wild. 

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus). Ring B[PC]. Ringed as a nestling in Bristol (UK) on 4th  July 1989. There were no further records until October 2013 when Marc Gálvez and José Guerra saw it on Mérida refuse tip [read more]. Therefore it is a bird in its 25th calendar year, having passed 24 years and three months since being ringed. As can be seen from the photo, the ring is now in poor condition. The maximum age known for this species in the world was one of 34 years and 10 months, also from the UK.

Common Crane (Grus grus). Ring a/NYB. A bird ringed as a juvenile on passage at Gallocanta (Aragón) in 1988 and seen by Manolo Gómez Calzado in Vegas Altas del Guadiana (Extremadura) on several occasions since 2003. In January 2009 and October 2011 it was accompanied by its mate, but without young. It is therefore a bird of its 24th  calendar year  and with more than 22 years of age [read more]. This bird exceeds the record of the oldest according to Euring for Europe, which cites a Swedish bird of 20 years and three months of age, although both are far from the record achieved by a bird of the eastern race (lilfordi) which reached 41 years old in the wild. In Extremadura we have another record of a crane in its 20th calendar year, hatched in Germany and seen in Oliva de Plasencia (Javier Prieta).

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Ring G[J]. Female called Gabriela hatched in Scotland in 1991 (photo: Roy Dennis), where it has bred since1996, and has wintered, at least since 2000, at the Gabriel y Galán Reservoir (Cáceres), where it is currently present (November 2013; Jesús Montero. César Clemente, S. Mayordomo, J. Prieta). It is therefore a bird in its 23th calendar year and more than 22 years old. This bird perhaps merits its own post, since it has been tracked for three seasons by satellite, as have one of its mates and some of its young (all have wintered in Africa). One of its descendents is also part of an introduction project that has started in Urdaibai (Vizcaya). The oldest Osprey known is one of 32 years old in North America and in Europe one of 26 years and 11 months in Finland.

White Stork (Ciconia ciconia). Ring W[F|FS]. Hatched in a nest in Trujillo (Cáceres), where it was ringed on 6th June 1989, and has been seen twice nesting in a clump of pines at  Monroy (Cáceres), with records almost twenty years apart: on 12th April 1992 (I. Ludwichowst) and on 1st April 2010 (Juan Manuel Domínguez –photo-). Who knows if it is still there (if anyone is encouraged to look for it, the colony is beside the Cáceres -Torrejón el Rubio-Monfragüe road). It was in its 22nd calendar year and 21 years and 10 months since being ringed. It was also seen in January 2002 at a refuse tip at Cádiz and in January 2003 en the rubbish tip at Dos Hermanas (Seville). The oldest ages published for this species are: 39 years for a wild bird in Switzerland and 48 years in captivity. In Extremadura we have two records of birds in their 18th and 16th calendar years.

Black Stork (Ciconia nigra). Ring W[C|HN]. Here we are talking about the dearly loved Choni, subject of one of the most popular posts in this blog [readmore]. Hatched in Oliva de Plasencia (Cáceres) in 1990, it occupied one of the most visible nests in Monfragüe for 18 years, successfully raising 46 young. It was seen for the last time in the summer of 2011, in its 22nd calendar year and with more 21 years and 3 months since being ringed, it could be the longest lived Black Stork in the world. There is a published record of a bird of 18 years and 7 months from Poland and one of 31 years in captivity.  In Extremadura we have records of a 15-year old bird and one in its 11th calendar year.

The seven cases above are the only ones citing birds of more than 20 years old in Extremadura.  Examples of birds of great age, but less than 20 years old we have the following:
- Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). A 17 year old bird in Badajoz (Ismael Galván). The oldest wild bird recorded in the world is 27 years old.
- Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica). In the GOCE database we only have records of four birds, with ages of 11, 11, 13 and 16 calendar years (the last has 14 years and 10 months since ringing; see the blog of Atanasio Fernández). This is a high average, given that the oldest of this species ever recorded is one of 15 years and 9 months from Denmark.
- Greylag Goose (Anser anser). Birds of more than 11 and 13 calendar years (marked as adults) have been seen on the Portaje Reservoir (S. Mayordomo) and Valdesalor Reservoir (Carlos Fernández). The oldest in captivity in the world was 31 years old, although a wild Pink-footed Goose has reached 41 years old.

 A few days ago news came out about a House Martin (Delichon urbicum) ringed in Badajoz city in 2005 and found dead in a pellet of a Tawny Owl, collected just 400 metres from the site of ringing, eight years later. The site could not have been any other since Badajoz is where House Martins have been more closely studied than almost anywhere and it is where more House Martins have been ringed and controlled than anywhere else in Spain (Florentino de Lope’s team/UEX; photo by Carlos de la Cruz). This becomes the longest-lived of this species in Spain (there are two cases of seven-year old birds); although in Sweden there is a record of 15 years. These are all extraordinary results for a species which on average will live for just two or three years.

And since we have embarked on this saga, let’s continue: what are the longest living birds in the wild? At the global level, there is a female Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), called Wisdom, which is still alive and is breeding in Midway (Hawaii, USA), where in 2013 she succeeded to raise a young, despite being 62 years old.  She was marked in 1953 when five years old.  It is said that other albatrosses have lived longer, but that this has not been confirmed with marked birds. Thus there is a female Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) called Grandma also believed to be 62 years old, with an estimated age of ten years when ringed in 1937, and seen for the last time in 1989, 52 years later.

In Europe, the longest-lived bird we have come across is a Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) of more than 50 years and 11 months old (trapped as an adult). The following is a Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) of more than 45 years and three months, a Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) of more than 43 years and 11 months and an Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) of 43 years and 4 months. As one can see, seabirds, waterfowl and waders can reach great age, but also raptors (Golden Eagle 32 years, Eagle Owl 27 years) and even smaller birds like Alpine Swift (26 years) and passerines (Raven 23 years, Common Starling 23 years).

In captivity, it is difficult to find out about  the oldest bird. We have found a scientific publication on longevity in parrots that cites a Salmon-crested Cockatoo  (Cacatua moluccensis) of no less than 92 years old. There is a Greater Flamingo in a zoo in Adelaide (Australia) which is more than 80 years old, having lived there since 1933, when it arrived as an adult. In a zoo in Chicago there is a cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) 80 years old, called Cookie, which hatched in 1933. These figures are a long way short of the 255 years calculated by radiocarbon dating of a male Aldabran Tortoise (Geochelone gigantea), called Adwaita, captured in the Seychelles and kept in a zoo in India from 1875 to its death in 2006 (a life spanning three centuries!!). The longest-lived mammal appears to be a Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus). In some specimens remains of antique harpoons have been found which date back to the end of the 19th century suggesting ages of between 115-130 years. Additional studies based on the eye structure affirm the possibility that the species could reach 150-200 years old.