Britain's birds are living longer, healthier lives

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Many of Britain's birds are living for more than 30 years - far longer than was previously thought, ornithologists have discovered.

Many of Britain's birds are living for more than 30 years - far longer than was previously thought, ornithologists have discovered.

Some birds caught last year have been alive for a third longer than expected for their species. And others, still alive, may have hatched before the system of putting rings on birds' legs began in 1909.

Experts think the spate of record-breaking last year is largely due to better rings, but climate change could also be stretching birds' life spans.

An oystercatcher, one of Britain's most familiar waders, has been found aged 35, older than the seven supporters of the British Trust for Ornithology who caught it in Lincolnshire last summer.

A whooper swan, a winter visitor from Iceland, was caught near Caerlaverock in south-west Scotland aged 22 years and six months - smashing the whooper longevity record by seven years.

And a Leach's petrel has been found in the Western Isles almost 30 years after it was first ringed, making it almost eight years older than the oldest petrel previously found. It will have flown at least 330,000 miles on its migration from southern Africa in those years - not counting the miles it flies while fishing each day.

The new records were uncovered during the trust's annual ringing survey, when 1,730 ornithologists and volunteers trapped nearly 800,000 birds to record the data carried on their leg rings.

Several records for individual species were broken this year. In Scotland, a buzzard, Britain's most common hawk, was found to have lived for 24 years and three months, a modest increase in the previous record of 22 years and six months.

A bar-tailed godwit was found aged 30 years and three months - a four-year jump on the last figure. Cuckoos, the trust found, could live for at least seven years - another four-year increase on the earlier record. Skylarks can survive to nine years old, and house martins to seven years.

The findings have confirmed the suspicion that many common birds live longer than we realise. Experts believe that seabirds such as the gannet could live to be 100. Some Manx shearwaters ringed in 1953 are still alive.

The new records were mainly down to the more durable rings attached to birds' legs, which are less likely to fall off, said Graham Appleton, a press officer at the trust. Ringing is also better organised, so ringed birds are more likely to be found and any worn-out rings replaced.

The work is crucial, he said, to understanding why birds such as the house sparrow and starling are in such steep decline. "We've now got much better estimates of the survival rates of birds, and that's important because we need to know how long the average bird survives to know whether their numbers are going up or down," he said.

However, Britain's milder climate in recent years will also improve a bird's chances of survival, the trust suspects. Warmer winters and longer summers will lower the chances that migratory birds, such as whooper swan, petrel and oystercatcher, are killed by storms or the cold.

Buzzard ( Buteo buteo). Britain's commonest bird of prey, it has large, rounded wings and a stubby body, and favours uplands and farmland. It lives across Britain, but winters in eastern England
New record: 24 years, three months, 28 days
Old record: 22 years, six months, 12 days
Ringed and recaptured: Dumfries & Galloway
Air miles: Not migratory

Whooper swan ( Cygnus cygnus). A large swan, with a yellow "flash" on its black beak
New record: 22 years, six months, 15 days
Old record: 15 years, nine months, 21 days
Ringed: Dumfries & Galloway
Recaptured: Iceland
Air miles: 53,000

Oystercatcher ( Haematopus ostralegus). Black and white wader
New record: 35 years, 25 days
Old record: 32 years, 11 months, 19 days
Ringed: Norfolk Recaptured: Lincolnshire
Air miles: 98,000

Bar-tailed godwit ( Limosa lapponica). A long-billed and long-legged wader
New record: 30 years, three months, seven days
Old record: 26 years, three months, 29 days
Ringed and recaptured: Norfolk
Air miles: 192,000