Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bird of the Month; The Baltimore Oriole

For the next few blogs, we'll be focusing on one of the elements that first drew me to life as a naturalist: birds. I've always loved birds. I remember being 10 years old sitting in my metal 5th grade desk at Andrews Heights Elementary studying the basic skeletal system of the songbird. At the age of 18 I went to volunteer full-time with my sister Peg at Three Rivers Avian Center, a bird rehab facility in Brooks, WV. At the age of 25, I got married and held my bird-themed wedding reception at Hawks Nest State Park. If you visit my house....you know what? I'm going to stop right there. I could go on...but I'd rather stop at "Gee, she likes birds" than prattle on into "eccentric bird lady" territory!

But in all seriousness, every eco-friendly gardener should prioritize the maximization of bird habitat in his or her property. The reasons are two-fold: 1) Birds bring a continuous array of color and song to your property and 2) unlike the squirrels, meadow voles, and chipmunks that visit your yard, the birds need your help. I will expound on these thoughts in my next two blogs. But to kick off the "The Birdy Blogs" I thought I would introduce a recent visitor to my feeder, our new friend the Baltimore Oriole. Just see if you don't want him to visit your place after this!

The male Baltimore oriole is the most conspicuous. He's a medium-sized song bird - a little bigger than a robin - characterized by blazing orange plumage that contrasts starkly with a black hood. The female is similar, but the hood is brownish and less defined and the feathers yellow-green where the orange would be. Even if she didn't blend in so well, you'd still see her less since she doesn't sing from the treetops defending a territory. In fact, she'll behave very subversively to avoid leading a predator to her nest. You can see her in parks in the Spring, but you'll almost certainly see him first. These birds are icterids (isn't THAT a cool word?) - meaning they're in the blackbird family. They're wonderfully easy to see with their bright plumage and loud song, but they will not allow you to get close to them and you will never see one on the ground.

Like all birds, Baltimore Orioles have distinct habitat requirements. Just like you won't find a Red-wing blackbird on top of a mountain (they need open spaces and open water) - you won't find a Baltimore Oriole in a densely populated residential area or deep in the forest. These birds love: 1. tall trees 2. open areas along forest edges 3. sunny places. So, while they don't like deep forest, they don't like yawning stretches of field either. I don't live in the most natural location if you can believe it. The vicinity around my living area includes other houses, a gas station, and a busy highway. But the oriole still comes to see me because I have these landscape features....and ok, an oriole feeder.

Technically, these birds are insectivorous. At least one, but I think two...are loving my yard right now since some tent caterpillars took up refuge in a tree along our yard. But, these birds also will eat fruit nectar...not unlike a hummingbird. A little humorously, just as the ruby-throated hummingbird is attracted to red, the Baltimore oriole is attracted to orange (I can't even begin to explain that one!) You can set out a halved orange, trays of jelly, or a commercial oriole feeder with oriole nectar like the one in this blog. Just makes sure it does not get old or moldy! Reed set ours out on our Walnut tree, and as you can see, an oriole appeared in just a few days and has been back several times. You can get one like this on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Birds-Choice-Oriole-Fest-Oriole-Feeder/dp/B001QIVXW4/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1305076843&sr=1-3-spell or visit your nearest Tractor Supply Store.

Yes, these birds do like fruit. But unless you're somehow growing oranges, orioles will not present any threat to your crops (they'll even leave your conventional feeders alone). Their song, which you can listen to along with video on the Cornell website http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Baltimore_Oriole/sounds (Go ahead, take a listen, it will only take a few seconds). Don't you agree this whistle is the fullest, loudest, almost human whistle? It just so happens that makes great background music to planting your seeds (at least as long as the male is establishing territory). Furthermore, if you happen to have a tall enough tree you may be graced with the highly unusual Baltimore oriole nest (pictured above). It's enough to give you a minor panic attack to imagine baby orioles in a bag made of grasses 40' or more off the ground - but the most experienced parents make very sturdy nests and I've never known one to fall. Plus, orioles fledge in 14 days meaning that in 2 short weeks after eggs - you just might have BABY orioles!

Truly, I'm interested if you also see these birds around this time. If you happen to see one, or are able to attract one - please sound off in the comments or send me a message on facebook!

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