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Monday, May 9, 2011

The Orioles That Fly and Sing

An adult male Baltimore oriole.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Mornings usually find me in the hot tub, unkinking and preparing to carry on with life.  The other day I was soaking and heard an oriole sing.  It was a trill of many notes, a slight pause, and then one last, rather long, note.  I imitated it, as I am wont to do when I hear birds, but since I'm not accustomed to whistling, I omitted the final note.  The oriole repeated his song, and I did, too.  A third time.
The fourth time he hopped out on a branch of the 65' pine he was in so he could see me and I could see him.  This time, looking straight at me, he sang it again with a long pause and a very loud, sustained final note.  This cracked me up - he was teaching me the song.  I repeated it again and omitted the last note.  He hopped out closer, and sang it again with a long pause and loud final note.  I did it right.  He tried it again without the emphasis on the final note.  I whistled it with the final note.  Satisfied, he took off and two of his brothers followed him.

An adult female Baltimore oriole.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.

People think critters are not that smart, and many people would think I am anthropomorphizing, but I think if they paid attention, and did so with respect and an open mind, they would be surprised.  As to anthropomorphizing, I've often wondered whether it was alternately true that we claim certain behaviors to be human, when in fact they may be universal.  I'll never forget the field mouse that was caught between our front door and the screen door.  When I swung open the door, looked down and saw him, he looked up at me.  He then sat on his haunches and covered both his eyes with his front paws and started shaking.  When I cracked the screen door so he could get out, he looked up at me first, then hied home.  Pretty typical behavior when a defenseless creature is approached by a possible predator, especially a human child.

An adult male Bullock's Oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

I love birds and notice them wherever I go.  The supermarket we often shop at has a diner around the corner where a huge gang of grackles hang out, and they constantly discuss things in a language I can't hear enough of.  It's a sure sign of a healthy environment if there are birds in the area.  Some friends have a gorgeous backyard - the lawn is very lush and green and there is always something in prolific bloom.  But there is not an insect or bird anywhere, and their yard has a ghostly silence.  Of course, they use chemicals to keep it insect-free and lovely, but it's not healthy.  When their dog started getting mysterious burns on his paws which the vet couldn't figure out, I knew it was the chemicals.

An adult female Bullock's oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Back to orioles...we've had them come to our high desert property every year, but the last two either they didn't come or I totally missed seeing them, which is not likely.  This year they are back.  I keep seeing the rather drab females a lot, but don't see the boys too often.  Oddly enough, when the orioles come round, grosbeaks usually do, too, but so far no sign of them.

Yellow Grosbeak (also Mexican Yellow Grosbeak), courtesy of Wikipedia
Black-head Grosbeak, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Although they are often confused with orioles, grosbeaks are a loosely-grouped
category of songbirds with large beaks belonging to different families, such as
finches, cardinals, tanagers, and weavers.

They feed off the hummingbird feeders, which does not make the hummers very happy.  One hummer in particular.  I call him Godzilla, not only because he is large for his species, but he is very aggressive and tries to keep every other hummer away from the feeders, expending more energy in defense than in feeding.  I was in a local pet store chain when I noticed oriole feeders and bought two.  This seems to keep the hummers, Godzilla in particular, happy, although they've been known to steal a sip or two.

Oriole feeder by Perky Pet.

Orioles are a part of the blackbird family, formally known as Icterus.  They are perching birds, and are great mimics.  They love oranges, but also apples, cherries, berries, figs and nuts - just like me!  They also eat insects (unlike me) which makes them nice to have around.  They like tall trees and lots of underbrush.  They also like jams and jellies, and you can even buy specialized feeders that hold jars for them.

Baltimore orioles were named for Lord Baltimore, whose coat-of-arms bears the colors of the males.  They are also the namesake of the baseball team in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are also the state bird.  They live in the eastern U.S., and winter in the south of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Map of Baltimore oriole habitats courtesy of here.

Bullock's orioles were named for William Bullock, who was a British traveller, antiquarian and amateur naturalist.  They live in the western U.S., and migrate to Mexico and northern Central America.  At one time Baltimore and Bullock's orioles were considered to be one species, the Northern oriole.

Map of Bullock's oriole habitats courtesy of here.

There is a third common species of oriole in the U.S., the Orchard oriole.  It is the smallest, and lives in the eastern to middle U.S., wintering in southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  They prefer the edges of wooded areas, or open areas with groups of trees.  They are called "nectar robbers", as they obtain nectar from flowers without pollinating it, by piercing their bases.

An adult male Orchard oriole, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Map of Orchard oriole habitats courtesy of here.

There are many members of the Icterus family besides the three mentioned, at least thirty-two.  You can't have enough of a good thing!  I hear my teacher singing his heart out, so perhaps it's time for another lesson...

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