A Photo

I’m not a photographer. It’s not in my nature to sit and wait.  When I’m out I like to keep moving. Mostly by foot. Birding by auto isn’t my thing. Maybe occasionally by bike. But to get a great photo one needs to be patient.

A few Saturdays ago I worked my way down besides one of the marshy ponds at Atterbury FWA to see if there were any waterfowl on the pond.


There were a few unseen CANADA GEESE at the far end of the pond.

But there was a SWAMP SPARROW chipping under the brush. I gave a pish and it came a little closer, checked me out, and went on about its business. I stood motionless, like a good photographer, waiting, and watching.

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The sparrow worked the area under the limbs. It worked on top of limbs. It scratched at the leaves. It jumped and hopped checking out the small area just left in the photo. It moved from 10 feet away to a couple of feet.

But always with a tangle of limbs between us.

I still took several photos. Only one turned out. The one above.

And for a reason I can’t put my finger on the photo struck out at me.

I have taken 1000’s of bird photos over the years and this is only the second that instantly struck out to me.

Here’s the other. February 3, 2010. Illinois River Widewaters, LaSalle County, IL. Gulls congregate in large numbers on the river side of the road. This is the view towards the bluff.

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Neither photo is of rare species. Neither are exceptionally good photos. The locations aren’t exotic.

The photos must remind me of something. Not sure what, but something. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Or probably not since the odds are it is something personal from my past.

Have certain bird photos ever struck you?

Complacency in Birding

After leaving Franklin High School a week ago Saturday I headed south towards Atterbury but first stopping by the flooded field spot. It’s the same road I always take to Atterbury and the following happened earlier this year.

This past winter I happened to find another GREAT BLUE HERON Rookery in Johnson County. And it got me wondering about a few things.

I wouldn’t have found this one except I was watching a pair of BALD EAGLES flying low over a distant tree line. And while watching them glide I noticed a large nest in one of the trees. And then another. Turned out there are approximately 20 nests in 3 different trees.

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The view from over a half mile away. The same view when I first noticed the rookery. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16
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The same view with higher magnification. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16

Now I would have normally chalked this up to just missing the nests previously, but it’s on the road I frequently travel when I bird. It’s the VESPER SPARROW road and if there’s been rain, a little farther east, a flooded field that might have shorebirds. And I actually first saw the rookery from the road I always take to Atterbury FWA.

A road I have driven hundreds of times.

Now granted, this rookery is hard to see and if you aren’t looking, you’ll miss it. But I always thought I did a good job of scanning trees for hawks or flying birds.

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The rookery is obviously active as seen by the herons on nests and standing on limbs. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16
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This photo shows 7 or 8 herons in the main tree. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16

So how have I missed it? And if I missed this one, besides other rookeries, what else am I missing?

A tough question and I’m not sure I have an answer. Complacency is all I can answer.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t a new colony. I just think I get in a mind-set to get to Atterbury as fast as possible and since I have driven the road a hundred times before I’m not looking for anything new. And that’s obviously a mistake.

Because the Bald Eagles I saw were new for the area. And the heron rookery was new. And who knows what else is new?

Maybe just once in a while I need to revisit those areas I have written off as being void of birds. And pay more attention to the often birded areas.

Who knows what I’ll find!

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Maybe a Rusty Blackbird? Atterbury FWA 3/19/16

Have you ever felt you have been complacent in birding?

Right on Time

I know I said in the last post I would continue last week’s story, but I thought I’d report on yesterday’s birds first.

Living here three years I have learned there is basically a two week window to see COMMON LOONS, HORNED GREBES, and BONAPARTE’S GULLS in Johnson County. So I thought I had better take advantage of a day off Friday to check the local water. I wasn’t disappointed.

The shorebird spot was still devoid of shorebirds. Maybe tomorrow.

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But there was a Blue-winged Teal showing nicely by the road. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16

I then headed to Driftwood SWA to check on loons and grebes. NOTHING but a distant PIED-BILLED GREBE. Once again no waterfowl. Or no fisherman for that fact.

But for the second year in a row at Driftwood I had an early BARN SWALLOW mixed in with the TREE SWALLOWS.

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An early season Barn Swallow with one of the hundred+ Tree Swallows. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
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Looking a little colder here. And it was cold, only in the 30’s. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

I wasn’t surprised but both the Barn Swallow and the count on the Tree Swallows – 110 – were flagged by eBird. The Barn Swallow was 3 days earlier than the one I wrote about last year.  And the number of Tree Swallows wasn’t unusual for this time of year.

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The Tree Swallows kept coming in off the lake to preen in this tree. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
If you look close you can see 10 or more Tree Swallows feeding over the lake. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

But no loons was troublesome since I’m not sure I’ll have an opportunity to check for them in the next 2 weeks and Driftwood is the only location I have seen them in Johnson County.

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A Field Sparrow calling right at noon. Telling me to eat lunch? Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
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And a Brown Thrasher replying. (Not really) Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

On to Atterbury FWA to check for other waterfowl. Stopping at Honker Haven (you have to love the names the DNR has assigned to the small ponds) for waterfowl, I immediately see a COMMON LOON on the water.

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This Common Loon is still showing beautifully even in the bad lighting. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16
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And on the down low. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16

As stated above, a county first for me outside of Driftwood. It didn’t move around or dive which wasn’t unusual since this isn’t a very deep pond. In summer it doesn’t take long for it to develop into shorebird habitat. I also saw a GADWALL which I was missing off the county list.

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Finally a Gadwall for my 2016 county list.Would have hated to miss it. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16

My last stop was Lowe’s Pond in Franklin for a possible HORNED GREBE.

Walking down to the water and looking around the brush one pops up about 20 feet from me. What luck!

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A Horned Grebe that actually stayed for a few minutes and didn’t dive away. Lowe’s Pond – Franklin – 3/25/16

And it didn’t get spooked for a minute actually giving some good photos. But it finally noticed me and took off to the far end to be with the LESSER SCAUP, BUFFLEHEAD, and RING-NECKED DUCKS.

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Now swimming away. Lowe’s Pond – Franklin – 3/25/16

So all in all a good day. Missed the Bonaparte’s but I have only seen  them once in the county.

The Start to A Solid Saturday

The weather turned out to be better than expected last Saturday with just slight drizzle and overcast skies versus the rain for both Saturday and Sunday that was predicted.  But even with that and being on the road all week I wasn’t moving too fast Saturday morning. This meant I didn’t get out of the house until 10:30. Which just might be a record for the latest time getting out on a Saturday. But my wife was out-of-town so I wasn’t in any hurry to get home early. I spent the day hitting the usual haunts in Johnson County. Nothing fancy, just a solid day. One of those enjoyable days that’s good to be out.

First stop was the grasslands just over the Marion – Johnson county line which I blogged about back in December. This is an area off Interstate 65 that is going to be turned into a shopping area. The only thing hinting the project is still on was a sign stating Retail Space for Rent.  So we’ll see if and when it gets going.

The area held the usual grassland birds plus a FOX SPARROW in the hedge row. I only bring it up since, once again, I didn’t have my camera out of the car yet and the sparrow was right out in a photographic pose.  Just like last week. I now only have a couple more weekends for a Fox Sparrow photo since they are gone by mid-April.

The only bird allowing a photo was a KILLDEER.

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This Killdeer was trying to lead me away from what I assume was its future nesting area. Greenwood Retaining Ponds 3/19/16

The species with the biggest number on Lowes Pond in Franklin was AMERICAN COOT and there were only 22 of them. But there were 5 BUFFLEHEAD that are always nice to see.

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A Bufflehead pair that took off about .1 second AFTER this photo. Which is unusual since they usually take off .1 second BEFORE the photo. Lowe’s Pond 3/19/16

There were also a HOUSE FINCH pair which came in close for a photo-op. Come to think of it there were House Finches at most stops.

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This male House Finch really didn’t mind me being close. Getting tame?? Lowe’s Pond 3/19/16
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And his equally tame female friend. You can sure tell it was a dark day. Lowe’s Pond 3/19/16

At Franklin HS I once again flushed a WILSON’S SNIPE. Maybe I’ll still get a photo of one since they usually stay to early May.

In one of the little trees on the perimeter road were 3 SAVANNAH SPARROWS. And all 3 looked like they were freezing even though it was 45F.

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One of the apparently freezing Savannah Sparrows. Being my first of the year maybe they had just migrated from Florida? Franklin HS 3/19/16
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The numbers of Eastern Meadowlarks in the area is starting to pick up. Franklin HS 3/19/16
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And what I think is one of the least photographed local birds – Common Grackle. I just liked the way this one was sitting and calling in the tree. Note the large bill. Franklin HS 3/19/16

From there I headed to the country and then on to Atterbury.

But what happened on the way will be the topic of the next post.

The First Wave

If you have spent any length of time birding then you know spring migrants come through the Midwest in Waves. The First Wave are heartier migrants that winter just south of the winter freeze line, which in a normal winter is usually just south of the Midwest. These First Wavers usually start showing up in early to mid-March and in milder years small numbers of these birds are present all winter.

This map from IUCN Red List shows the range of the First Waver Eastern Phoebe. Note they winter just south of the Midwest.

The next wave are birds that winter in Florida or the Gulf Coast. Birds like Greater Yellowlegs. They usually show up later in March.

And this map shows the Second Waver Greater Yellowlegs that winters on the Gulf of Mexico coast (and all the way to the tip of South America if the map was extended) From IUCN Red List.

As I posted last week, Mike and I spent the first weekend in March looking for early migrants. And we struck out. But this past Saturday I ran into five of the First Wave migrants.

But before I went looking for First Wavers I checked a couple of flooded fields that regular hold shorebirds. No luck but one of them did have a few NORTHERN SHOVELERS feeding in the field.

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Brrr, that’s cold! A Northern Shoveler appears to be testing out the water before getting in. Flooded Field – Johnson County 3/12/16

There is a country road bridge north of Atterbury FWA that usually has an early EASTERN PHOEBE.  Before I reached the bridge I heard one calling from the backyard of a house in the woods. Never did see it and there wasn’t one at the bridge. But it was good to know they were back.

I noticed that the American Robin pre-dawn chorus began in earnest early last week with the warmer temperatures. This one was at Driftwood SWA. 3/12/16

Then on to Driftwood SWA which usually has several of the First Wavers breeding there in summer. And it looks like this year will be no exception.

My first target were the FIELD SPARROWS that usually occupy Driftwood in large numbers. Walking east of the boat unloading area I heard and then saw 2 chasing each other. They did this for the whole time, never landing long enough for a photo.  There were other distant Field Sparrows calling out their “pin-pong ball on a table” call but they were not to be seen either.

Moving to the other side of the lake and immediately getting out of the car I heard a BROWN THRASHER.  He was at the top of a tree and I assume staking out his territory.

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The first Brown Thrasher of the year singing at Driftwood SWA. 3/12/16
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Same individual getting ready to sing.

And within a few seconds I heard another thrasher calling a couple hundred yards to the west.

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I thought the thrashers might not be present or be little less vocal, but in true form they called the entire time I was present.

Walking down to the lake I heard a TREE SWALLOW, another of the First Wavers, calling and then flying away. A few minutes later one landed in a tree for a photo.

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The first Tree Swallow of the year acted like it wasn’t sure where it wanted to go, so it sat for a few minutes. Driftwood SWA 3/12/16

With 4 First Wavers seen I headed to Johnson County Park to pick up one more First Waver – FOX SPARROW. Last week Mike found one but I never really got on it. So back to the sparrow spot for another try. It took some pishing but eventually after numerous Song Sparrows and Juncos, a Fox Sparrow popped up. Same one as last week? In the poor light I never did get a good photo but I did get good looks.

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Not a First Waver but definitely the most numerous species on the day. Song Sparrows were out singing in large numbers at every stop. Driftwood SFA 3/ 12/16

With The Doldrums over its time to get back catching more Waves.

Besides the Rusty, Another Endangered Species to Check

I’m sure you’ve recently seen postings about the annual Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. The Blitz encourages people to count Rusty Blackbirds which are in severe decline nationwide. Even a recording of zero is okay as it shows that people are looking and not just missing them. I plan to go out several times this spring, starting this weekend, and look for Rusty Blackbirds in the appropriate habitat.

But I encourage you to look for a another migrating species this spring. If you remember back in December I posted about endangered species in Indiana. On the IUCN list of VULNERABLE SPECIES were three species. One was the Rusty Blackbird.  Another is a summer resident, the Cerulean Warbler, which I’ll discuss later this spring.

And the one that is migrating through right now is the Horned Grebe. I encourage you to get out and actively look for Horned Grebes just as much as Rusty Blackbirds because it’s also in a state of severe decline.

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I found this very late Horned Grebe when I lived in Illinois. Most May reports are from early May and all the later ones are along Lake Michigan. And it was a nice, hot day – here are my eBird comments – 93F, winds – S at 15-20, partly cloudy. I also had a Franklin’s Gull that day. LaSalle Lake – 5/26/12

I’m not sure why the Horned Grebe doesn’t get the same attention as the Rusty Blackbird. Maybe because it migrates through much of the Eastern US as opposed to wintering here as the Rusty Blackbird does. But worldwide the Horned Grebe is in severe decline.

Rusty Blackbird

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As seen on these range maps from xeno-canto (http://www.xeno-canto.org/) the Rusty blackbird winters in a much larger portion of the Eastern United States. But also note the Horned Grebe is a global and not just hemispherical species.

I also think the Horned Grebe gets less attention in North America than the Rusty Blackbird because it’s a global species has opposed to the Rusty Blackbird being a North American species. Rusty Blackbirds winter in southern swamp hardwood forests and then migrates north to the Arctic tundra.Rusty Blackbird A

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From IUNC webpage information on the Rusty Blackbird and Horned Grebe and the justification for Vulnerable status.

If you plan on going out looking for Horned Grebes, which I hope you will, here are some hints.

  1. They like the large, deep water lakes. In my area that means large dammed reservoirs or the smaller man-made gravel pits or interstate borrow ponds. I have also seen them to a lesser extent on wide waters of rivers, but more often on the deep lakes and ponds.
This dark photo shows a Horned Grebe between summer and winter plumage. Lowe’s Pond Franklin, IN 3/29/14

2.  If you’re going to get an accurate count, take time to sit and wait. Horned Grebes have a tendency to dive for a length of time and come up in a different part of the lake. So for an accurate count I usually sit and wait.

If I hadn’t sat and watched for a while I would have missed several birds on the day. These 4 were part of 18 seen at Driftwood SWA on the afternoon. 3/28/15

And once you have a count be sure to enter in eBird. Because eventually the Horned Grebe will pop up on someone’s radar and they will make more birders in North America aware it is an endangered species. And any data you enter in eBird will be used to show their decline and hopeful recovery over the years.

Just Waiting Around…

The Doldrums are still present.  But I can start to see a slight movement in the migratory sails which means we should slowly start moving toward full migration. But basically I’m still just waiting around…

I got an offer from Don G. to head to Goose Pond Saturday but after picking up a cold from basically being on the road for the past 2 weeks, I had to pass. So Mike and I hit some spots in Johnson County with the hope of seeing some early migrants plus add to our paltry 2016 Johnson County Lists.

Looking at the following cut from chart from eBird’s Indiana Bar Chart, you can see which species start migrating in early to mid-March.

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March migrants to Indiana boxed in yellow. – eBird Bar Charts

Our main targets were Eastern Phoebe and Tree Swallow, but the day turned out to be cloudy and cold and with the passing of a cold front, the winds turned to the W and then NW. So not a great day for migrating birds. Or photos for that part.

So birding turned out to be like any other winter’s day. Looking for waterfowl and sparrows and waiting for spring and migrants to arrive.

And outside of one stop most of the birds were either single or in a pair.

You know it’s slow when a photo of a pair of Mallards is about as good as it gets. Franklin HS 3/5/16
Or a Canada Goose at Irwin park in Edinburgh. Then again I can’t say I have ever posted a photo of a lone Canada Goose. 3/5/16
There was one, and only one, bird at Driftwood. A distant and a lone Ruddy Duck. 3/5/16

So we saw a pair of MALLARDS at Franklin High School, a pair of CANADA GEESE at Irwin Park, a lone RUDDY DUCK at Driftwood, and a lone WOOD DUCK with a pair of RING-NECKED DUCKS at Atterbury.  Like I said, all singles or pairs and that was it.

Except for Lowe’s Pond in Franklin. Which was good to see since the pond has been hit and miss this winter.

There was a good mixture of Lesser Scaup, Redheads, American Coots, Mallards, and Canada Geese at Lowe’s Pond in Franklin. 3/5/16

Mike took a few shots with his camera.

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Some of the 40+ Redheads that were at Lowe’s pond. 3/5/16
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A good flight shot of one of the Redheads that took off flying when it thought we were getting close. The others disagreed and just kept swimming. 3/5/16

We concluded the day at Johnson County Park coming across a large flock of sparrows at the usual spot. We ended up with over 10 each of SONG, WHITE-THROATED, and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS. Plus a few EASTERN TOWHEE, AMERICAN TREE, and a lone FOX SPARROW which Mike spotted and I really didn’t get a good look at. So not on 2016 list yet.

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The male American Kestrel that was hunting at Johnson County Park. The female was just a little higher up in the tree. 3/5/16

Hopefully the south winds and warmer temperatures forecast for this week will change things around. The Doldrums are getting old.

65 Year Old Coincidence – The Average Age of Birds

I occasionally mention some of the other birding blogs I follow. I should probably list those blogs because they usually contain something interesting. One I read on a weekly basis is A DC Birding Blog. Every week it pulls together articles and other blogs that are bird/nature related in a group titled “Loose Feathers”.

I was reading the articles from the Friday, February 12 post, and came across a coincidence. And like any good TV detective knows there isn’t such a thing as a coincidence. Two of the articles mentioned the same thing, something I don’t think I had previously grasped.

Two of the articles mention 2 totally unrelated species living to 65 years old – Laysan Albatross and African Gray Parrot. And the Laysan Albatross is still having chicks at 65!

An Old Bird Can Hatch A New Chick — Even At Age 65

This Talking Bird Is Disappearing From the Wild

By John Klavitter/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - http://gallery.usgs.gov/tags/NR2011_03_08, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14580487
Laysan Albatross – By John Klavitter/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – http://gallery.usgs.gov/tags/NR2011_03_08, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14580487
By L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lmbuga) - self made, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Ave_070910_008.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5635030
African Grey Parrot – By L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lmbuga) – self made, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Ave_070910_008.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5635030

And this is something I really didn’t know. And since I don’t believe in coincidences something must have been telling me to dig into this deeper.

First, I don’t think I really know how old birds live, especially our local birds. I have read if gulls can make it past the first, second, or third winter then they live longer. But I’m not sure how long they live. And I seem to know Red-tailed Hawks can live up to 30 years in the wild. And small songbirds, especially warblers, don’t live but a few years. But this is all kind of hazy knowledge.

I want to know more. And I don’t want to know the longest, I want the average. So I searched the internet.

I didn’t find a definitive answer but it appears that the first year for all species is about the same – BAD. It’s the going forward after the first year that makes the difference. And as always correct me if I’m drawing wrong conclusions.

From what I can tell the odds of birds living one year after fledgling from the nest is only around 50% (or less). From there the size of the bird takes over. If you are a small passerine your odds are around only 50-60% making it to the next and any subsequent years. If you are a large bird like an albatross your odds are about 95% you are going to make it each subsequent year. And hawks and gulls are somewhere in between.

And here is my rough interpretation of the data:

If we start with 100 birds that fledged the nest, only 50 (50%) will be alive the next summer.

That means only 60% of the 50 small birds will live to the next year – 50 x 60% = 30. But 90% of the larger birds or 45.

The third year 30 X 60% = 18 small birds. But 45 x 90% = 40 large birds.

Fourth year 18 x 60% = 11 small. But 40 x 90% = 36 large birds.

Fifth year 11 x 60% = 6. And that is about it for the small birds. But the large birds keep going with 32 still alive after 5 years. And on for another 5 years.

Hopefully you get the gist of what I was trying to show. At best a small bird has only a 1 in 10 chance living to year 5 and a larger bird has a much better 1 in 3 chance. If you want to get a better understanding read this paper, which shows the details of a study of Eurasian Blackbirds in England.

So the average life of a small passerine is under 2 years old. Studies show that the European Robin average age is 1.2 years. Here is a quote from that study that sums it up:

“So, the answer to our question is that most adult small birds in temperate regions such as ours live for between 1¼ and 1½ years, but that only about 10-20% of young reach adulthood. Big birds, seabirds and tropical birds can live much longer. But some individuals of any species can live as much as ten times as long as the average. But just like humans a few can live much longer.”

Reasons for living longer: size – top of the food chain, less predators, less involvement with man, large birds can avoid cats, skyscrapers, etc.

I really didn’t get an exact answer but I now know most birds don’t live very long, except the occasional albatross or parrot.