Why Birds Live So Long

Double Yellow-Headed Amazon parrot; yellow-headed parrot

Mature double-yellow headed Amazon parrot By William Warby

Birds are remarkably long lived for their body size when compared with mammals. Since birds have a higher metabolic rate, body temperature, and a higher resting glucose than that of mammals, it is assumed the parameters of aging are increased. These metabolic factors should lead to a reduced, not increased, life span. The exceptional longevity in birds suggests they have evolved special mechanisms to protect them from rapid aging in the wake of their increased metabolic processes. How is it that they are able to do it?

Flying allows escape from predation. Data show that there is an increased life span in birds and in mammals that can fly. Recent data shows that those animals that routinely undergo exertional exercise have longer life spans than those that do not. Birds have lower levels of oxidative damage in their mitochondrial DNA despite the increased energy required for flight. So what does this mean? These metabolic processes normally cause the release of free radicals and those bind to cellular components — particularly membranes. That causes the membranes to age and the normal processes of the membranes to malfunction or to perform less well.

But bird, particularly psittacines (parrots), live much longer than they are supposed to live. In fact the large macaws live on average four times their predicted life spans! Birds in general have a reduction in oxidative damage. This signifies that birds have lower levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) or have developed strategies to reduce the damage associated with them. Birds also have a complex array of mechanisms to reduce damage from oxidative processes. For example, male quail show plasticity of the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis despite the reduced fertility associated with aging. If only we could do that when we age! White matter tracts in the CNS of passerines regrow neurons related to song seasonally, which defies current mammalian dogma. If we could understand how they regrow tracts in their spinal cord and brain, it could help stroke victims and those with spinal cord injuries.

When Is A Bird A Senior Bird?

One concern that has been expressed is that old animals, including birds in the wild, simply die before they have a chance to show signs of aging. However, studies observing birds over time have shown that is not true. So when we look at our companion birds, we then ask, “At what age are they considered geriatric?”

In one study, Drs. Dury Reavill and Gerry Dorrestein determined the following by looking at age vs. changes associated with aging in older birds. Small birds (budgies, lovebirds) were considered senior at 6 years; cockatiels > 12 years; and Amazons, macaws, cockatoos, and African grey parrots  >  30 years.

There are a number of conditions that clinicians have observed in companion birds as they age. Tumors are more common in senior birds, including pituitary tumors in budgerigars. Cataracts and retinal changes have also been observed in a variety of psittacines. Decreased range of motion and osteoarthritis also occurs. However, radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis is much more difficult to discern. Chronic renal and liver disease occurs as our parrot friends age. Gout occurs more often in older birds. When the kidneys begin to fail, uric acid can accumulate within joints or on the surfaces of organs. Endocrine diseases tend to be more common as birds age, with gonadal degeneration often reported. Atherosclerosis and increased pulmonary hypertension have also been documented. The most common species affected include blue-fronted Amazon parrots (91.4%), Congo African greys (91.9%), and macaws. The average age when atherosclerosis occurs is 12 years, with plaques primarily in the brachiocephalic trunk, along with the pectoral and carotid arteries. Interestingly, fatty changes are rare in the coronary arteries. These devastating changes are associated with high-fat diets and lack of exercise.

Tips To Help Your Bird Age Well

So how then can we provide quality care to our parrots as they age? The first step is taking your senior bird in for a yearly exam by your avian veterinarian. The physical exam of the senior bird should include looking at the eyes for cataracts, determining the quality of feathering and, if there are skin changes, looking for lumps and bumps; palpating joints and determining if there is a change in mobility; if there is pain, auscultating the heart and lungs and taking a blood pressure and general palpation of the body. Additional diagnostic tests may be indicated in the individual patient.

How then can we support our senior feathered friends? Providing a good diet is the first step, one that offers balanced omega fatty acids to help with the quenching of oxidation from the free radicals. Foods should provide slightly increased levels of vitamin E and C, as these are used up at a higher rate as animals age. Vitamin A and beta-carotenes are also important in maintaining the membranes of the body — from the respiratory tree to the intestinal tract and the tubules of the kidneys. Vitamin A is also important for support of the immune system. A functioning immune system helps stave off infections and reduce the incidence of tumors. Seed diets, on the other hand, are deficient in these vitamins. Nutri-Berries, Avicakes and Senior Nutri-Berries have these important vitamins in them. They are also balanced with the omega fatty acids and non-GMO.

Senior Bird Nutri-Berries also contain milk thistle, dandelion, and ginger. These herbs are important for many of the organ systems. Milk thistle, or Saint Mary’s thistle, is a plant indigenous to the Mediterranean region and is used for chronic hepatitis in people and may help our birds as well. It works by stabilizing cell membranes and stimulates protein synthesis while accelerating regeneration in damaged liver tissue. Milk thistle promotes wound healing and counteracts skin degeneration as an anti-inflammatory and by free radical scavenging mechanisms. Silymarin, the main component in milk thistle, has an anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effect in rats and increases bile flow and bile salt secretion.

Dandelion is a perennial herb and has been noted to increase bile production and enhance the flow of bile. The choline content of dandelion may act to improve liver function as well. Patients with severe liver problems (loss of appetite, low energy, jaundice, and dyspepsia with deficient bile secretion) had a significant drop in blood cholesterol after 20 days of administration and their liver function tests improved. All of this would be of benefit to our senior birds.

Ginger is often used as a spice, but it is also a great medicinal herb.Ginger blocks nausea by reducing stimuli within the gastrointestinal tract. By inhibiting cyclo-oxygenase and lipo-oxygenase pathways, ginger inhibits both prostaglandin and leukotriene synthesis, thereby acting as an antioxidant. Ginger has been found to improve cardiovascular conditions and osteoarthritis, which are important to reduce those problems in senior birds.

Our senior birds represent the fountain of youth compared with mammals, and we can help them live improved healthful lives along the way!

Susan Orosz, PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ECZM (Avian)

About Susan Orosz, PhD, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian), Dipl ECZM (Avian)

Susan Orosz, Ph.D., DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Avian), Dipl. ECZM (Avian) Dr. Orosz is a board-certified specialist in avian medicine and surgery, both in the United States (ABVP, Avian) and in Europe (ECZM, Avian). She is known internationally through the advances made for the health care of birds, books and articles she has written, and her lectures to veterinarians and bird owners alike.

One thought on “Why Birds Live So Long

  1. Dr. Susan, Thank you so much for this valuable and interesting information.

    My Amazon is 32 1/2 years old and doing great. He is quite active for an Amazon … has a separate place for his food, a jungle gym, and a very large cage with three toys. This offers me opportunities to interact
    with him in positive ways … other than trying to pick him up or hold him.

    It’s good to know about the senior diet by Lafeber. I’ll ask the vet about it at our next visit … when I should start offering it to Pepper. He does enjoy some hand feeding at mealtime.

    And there’s the possibility that he may outlive me, so I need to find a place for him to be sent to and
    be well cared for. Information on that would be helpful (another article?). There’s a bird society here I could
    ask also … now that you’ve peaked my awareness.

    Patricia

    P.S. I enjoy your articles and look forward to them each month.

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