"To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing
Or only a divine."
The Oriole's Secret, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — The month of May comes to a close and the stream of colorful, migratory birds traveling north trickles to naught. By this time, our resident birds are on territory. They pair off, find appropriate places for nesting and settle in for the summer to raise a brood or two. The mornings are alive with song.
When the sun is barely over the horizon, a robin starts the morning chorus. Its cousins, the wood thrush and veery, call from within the forest. Chestnut-sided, blue-winged and black-throated green warblers are hidden in the tangle of bushes along the road. The house wren near the back garden always sounds irritated. The yellow-throated vireo takes up his favorite perch in the sugar maple in front of the house and calls, "Three-eight, (pause), three-eight."
Then the Baltimore oriole, Icterus galbula, chimes in, "Give me the keys, please .give me the keys." A few minutes later another one joins in with that sweet, solitary note as if saying, "Keys ..keys." Please note, this is my own mnemonic taken from my resident bird. Sibley translates the song as, "Pidoo, tewdi, tewdi, yewdi, tew, tidew," Huh? Not even close to my ear. Peterson leaves it at, "Rich, piping, whistled notes, variations on "hew-li," as does the National Geographic Field Guide.
Own theme songs
Others describe the song as "notes from a bugle," "blasts from a tiny trumpet," "notes with robust manliness," "He is," writes F. Schuyler Mathews in "Fieldbook of Wild Birds and Their Music," " a musician in the fullest sense with an ability to whistle a well-constructed song. His only fault is his fragmentary treatment of a good theme and his chary way of singing it."
Arthur Cleveland Bent in his "Life Histories of North American Birds" does not try to transliterate the song into syllables or words. He points out the infinite variations: "No two orioles sing the same tune, but each bird, in the main, sticks to his own theme." Which implies that the orioles I dubbed with singing about the keys are probably the same one that have returned here year after year. In any case, I find that, no matter what the variation is, I recognize orioles from the timbre of the notes.
My orioles are back! And since Danny and I are using up the remaining birdseed before closing down the feeders, we decide once again to try to lure in the orioles. Oranges — they love oranges we hear. I cut three huge oranges in half and spike them onto the top of the poles that hold the feeders. Not 20 minutes later, Mr. Oriole flies in and perches on the rim of the orange. The oriole is a spectacularly beautiful bird with striking plumage of black and orange, the very same color as the fruit. A few minutes later, his mate appears, a paler version of himself. Will they nest in the cottonwood tree by the pond or will they move to the maples in the back as they did one year?
A few days later, we discover that we are feeding perhaps three pairs of orioles so maybe they will all stay and nest. Although they are not as gregarious and social as their blackbird relatives that are fond of flocking, they have no problem nesting near one another. I will have to listen carefully in the mornings to see if I can single out different individuals by their song variations.
Although the orioles rush for their morning dose of orange pulp, they are primarily insectivores. Ninety percent of their diet is insects. Watch them as they flit up and down branches, turning over and probing leaves with that sharp beak in search of caterpillars, hairy or no. They feast on ants, beetles, boll weevils, tent caterpillars and rid an area of many noxious bugs. Occasionally orioles will look for treats in the garden. Bent claims that "Only a short-sighted churl or an ignorant fool would begrudge an oriole tidbits from his garden."
The sharp, black beak is also very important for nest building. They create a woven hanging nest intricately attached to small twigs at the end of a long drooping branch. The enclosed cradle is elaborately woven from long plant fibers, grapevine bark, Indian hemp, using softer grasses, the silk of milkweed, horse hair, yarn for the lining.
Much of the work takes place with the bird weaving from the inside of the enclosed nest. Construction takes 5 or 6 days and never do they rebuild an old nest. Orioles prefer elms, but now, since so many elms have been toppled by blight, they settle for maples, cottonwoods, poplars or fruit trees.
Baseball team colors
Why Baltimore oriole? The original colony in Maryland was governed by Sir George Calvert, the first Baron of Baltimore. His coat of arms is a combination of bright orange/yellow and black reminiscent of the plumage of this bird which was fairly common there in the early days of this country. The Baltimore oriole is the designated Maryland state bird, and, of course, the name endures with the baseball team whose uniforms play on the colors of the bird's plumage.
Curiously, in 1973, the American Ornithological Union (AOU), the powers-that-be in the bird world, combined this species with the western Bullock's oriole and changed the name of the two to northern oriole. The two species do not look all that similar, but are known to interbreed in a small section of the Great Plains where they overlap. But in 1995, the AOU decided, perhaps with DNA testing, they were in fact two different species. Back now to two different species.
No matter what you hear when the birds are singing high up in the trees, the Baltimore Oriole is definitely a divine addition to the summer landscape.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.