How long do Indigo Buntings live?


Male and Female Indigo Bunting  (Sandusky County Park District)

Male and Female Indigo Bunting (photo from Sandusky County Park District Facebook page)

Getting to hold a bird in your hand is a really special experience. You can feel the birds heat beating, feel how warm it is, look it right in the eye. It gives you a connection with an individual bird you can’t experience any other way. Bird banding got me addicted to birds and to research. I got involved when I was young and I’m still addicted to this very hands on method of studying birds. That is why I got so excited when I found out that one of the people who got me into bird banding captured a bird that set a new record for longevity (life span).

Tom Kashmer, bander for the Sandusky County Park District and Black Swamp Bird Observatory captured an Indigo Bunting last fall in NW Ohio that had been banded. He recorded the band number (each bird gets a unique number) and after submitting those records to the bird banding lab he learned this bird is THIRTEEN YEARS OLD. Totally blowing away the previous record for Indigo Buntings (8 years).

All data collected about birds banded in the U.S. is submitted to the Bird Banding Lab, (BBL) which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey. Having a central database allows us to have one resource to go to when we want to ask scientific questions and also allows us to track birds when they are recaptured. Tom did not band the Indigo Bunting originally, Mark Shieldcastle (Research Director, Black Swamp Bird Observatory) did, 13 years earlier, in a different part of NW Ohio. Since those records has been submitted to the BBL when Tom submitted his record of the recapture they were able to pull up the band number and see its entire history.

Mark Shieldcastle (Original Bander) and Tom Kashmer  (Recapture Bander). (Sandusky County Park District)

Mark Shieldcastle (Original Bander) and Tom Kashmer (Recapture Bander). (photo from Sandusky County Park District Facebook page)

Most passerines have an expected life span of 2-3 years [2] and for migratory species their lifespan can be even lower. Indigo Buntings migrate to Central America every year [3] so in this birds 13 years it has flown a long way and managed to dodge many of the hazards migratory birds face every year. While this bird is likely an anomaly it is important for us to understand both the ‘average’ behavior of an Indigo Bunting, but also the behavior of these more extreme birds, the outliers. Many times changes in a species is pushed by outliers. A male who lives for 13 years has probably produced many more offspring then one who only lived three years. If there is something genetically giving him an advantage and letting him live so long then he can pass this trait onto his offspring, and make a tiny push towards longer lived Indigo Buntings. This is just one example of the new information we can continue to learn by banding birds.

Not everyone is such a fan of bird banding [1]. While many of the concerns raised in this article have been addressed there are still many of the concerns about the impact banding has on the individual bird, either because the bird will be injured through the process, or experience stress which will hurt it in some way.

Another concern is since we have been banding birds for so long we don’t need to continue doing it, because we are not gaining any new information. Recapture rates for many species (recaptures are instances where a bird is banded and then captured again at a later date) are very low (less than 1% for non-game species) [1]. The low rate doesn’t prevent us from learning lots of important things about these birds. Banding allows us to understand population ecology, which might sound very abstract, but it’s extremely important to understand the demographics of a species population and by individually marking birds we are able to do that. It also allows us to look at migratory connectivity, since birds can be recaptured throughout the year. Even when a bird is only captured one time we can still learn valuable information and we can document that bird’s presence on the landscape in a way that isn’t possible through passive observation. When recaptures happen we learn a HUGE amount of information. We can track that bird through time, learn about how it has changed, and also how long it lives.

The documentation of this long-lived Indigo Bunting is a big moment for both birds and scientists. These kind of discoveries can be made by anyone though! If you ever encounter a dead bird, check and see if it has a band on its leg, and if it does, please report it! Having information about when and where a bird died is extremely useful! If you’re in the U.S. you can report banded birds here to USGS.