Avian longevities and their interpretation under evolutionary theories of senescence


  • Editor: Steven Le Comber

Paul W. Sherman, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Mudd Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
E-mail: pws6@cornell.edu


We comprehensively reviewed information on maximum life spans of wild birds (based on banding recoveries) and nine ecological, physiological and behavioral variables that have been hypothesized to affect the evolution of avian life spans. Data on maximum longevities and body masses were available for 936 species, and data on all variables were available for 470 species in 40 families from 15 orders. The Phoenicopteriformes (flamingos), Psittaciformes (parrots) and Procellariiformes (petrels and shearwaters) had the longest mean maximum life spans (>30 years), and the Passeriformes (perching birds), Podicipediformes (grebes) and Piciformes (woodpeckers) had the shortest mean maximum life spans (<10 years). Other orders were intermediate, with the Gruiformes (cranes and rails), Anseriformes (waterfowl), Ciconiiformes (herons and egrets) and Pelecaniformes (pelicans) living a mean maximum of 20–30 years, and the Columbiformes (pigeons), Strigiformes (owls), Falconiformes (hawks), Sphenisciformes (penguins) and Charadriiformes (shorebirds) living a mean maximum of 10–20 years. Within the speciose order Passeriformes, the Corvidae (crows) had longest mean maximum life spans (>17 years), and the Tyrannidae (flycatchers) and Parulidae (wood warblers) had the shortest mean maximum life spans (6 years). Multivariate regression analyses revealed that the independent variables together explained 80.3% of the variation in maximum longevities among 40 avian families, and 69.6% of the variation among 17 families of Passeriformes. In the comprehensive analysis four variables significantly affected maximum longevities, namely body mass, diet, sociality and breeding insularity (mainland vs. island), whereas breeding latitude, breeding habitat, nest-site location and migratory behavior did not have significant effects. These results are consistent with evolutionary theories of senescence, which predict that morphological and behavioral attributes that reduce extrinsic mortality should select for mechanisms that postpone physical deterioration, resulting in longer life spans and extended breeding opportunities.