Blane Klemek: Get out the grape jam and oranges; Orioles are back in MN
At this writing, on a glorious spring morning, sunshine and all, I can hear the clear and distinctive whistles of singing male Baltimore orioles throughout the leafless treetops of soon-to-be nest sites where oriole pairs will build their uniquely weaved pouch-nests within.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I hung out the hummingbird and oriole feeders, even though, at the time, I hadn’t actually observed these two species of birds. But every year around Mother’s Day, both hummers and orioles generally arrive at my backwoods home near Becida. And now that orioles and ruby throated hummingbirds — and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, too — are back in earnest, I’ve already had to refill the oriole feeder twice (all three species seem to target the oriole feeder as each of their favorite feeder for some reason).
Orioles belong to the avian family Icteridae. This is the same family that blackbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks, grackles, and cowbirds belong to. That said, it’s hard to mistake an oriole for any other species of bird, but you can definitely observe the features that orioles share with other species within their family. For example, acrobatics might be just one similarity that orioles share with red-winged blackbirds. Next time you observe a blackbird clinging to a cattail stalk, watch how an oriole clings to your oriole feeder — each species are quite good at perching in unusual positions.
All orioles, and most especially the males of the species, are colorful arboreal birds. Adult males are adorned with brightly colored breasts, bellies, and rump patches that contrast sharply with black heads, wings, throats, and in some species, black backs and tails. Most year-old males are colorful too, and sometimes present a unique challenge for birders.
The very first orchard oriole that I observed occurred near Woodworth, North Dakota in 1997. A couple of years later near the same area I saw another oriole that completely confounded me. It sang beautifully from the tops of aspen trees towering above a large and deep wetland. As I watched the bird through my binoculars, I jotted down a few quick notes about its plumage and habits. At home that evening I searched through the field guide for my “new” bird.
It took me awhile, but I finally figured it out. My new species of bird wasn’t a new species at all, but in fact was a young male orchard oriole not yet dressed in adult clothing. It was a good lesson for me as a birder. While his habits and song spoke volumes (everything said oriole), I completely ignored those characteristics, opting instead to be duped by the brilliance of his juvenile plumage.
With birds, as I learned once again, one has to be aware of not only physical variation between species, but variation within species, gender differences, time of the year observed, and the age of the bird itself. It is no wonder then that birding is so enjoyable to so many. What with its endless opportunity to challenge and delight us, it provides a lifetime of learning.
But back to those orioles. Depending on which bird books you look at these days, nine species of orioles occur in North America. Our most common oriole here in Minnesota is the Baltimore oriole. Again, depending on the bird book or the year the bird book was published, the Baltimore oriole is sometimes classified as a “race” of the so-called northern oriole. In some field guides the northern oriole is comprised of two races: the Baltimore and the Bullock’s. But as far as I know, the Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles are now recognized as separate species.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Baltimore oriole and other New World orioles, are the nests they build, or better said, weave. Baltimore orioles weave elaborate hanging nests resembling pouches from grasses and other vegetation. The nests are normally hung from the outermost, thin branches in the canopies of mature hardwood trees.
These durable pensile nests are the result of tightly woven construction, strong knots, and superior building materials. Seeing such intricate nests have always fascinated me. How, I wonder, can a bird with just beak and feet build structures that human hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs would have great difficulty duplicating? Nature is a wondrous thing to be sure.
If you don’t already do so, now is a good time to purchase an oriole feeder and fill it with sugar-sweetened water. One part sugar to three or four parts of water will do the trick nicely. Or, slice up some oranges and place the slices outdoors onto nails driven into the trunks of trees, or placed inside a bowl on something visible to you and your birds. Grape jam works great, too.
Indeed, without question — birds, birds, and more birds — nothing beats springtime in northern Minnesota as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)