Minnesota Outdoors: To observe Baltimore orioles build their highly unique nests is a privilege

Blane Klemek

    Each season is different when it comes to local abundance or presence of wild birds. Influxes and irruptions of some wild birds are common, and something many of us observe on an annual basis. Even common migrant songbirds that we’re accustomed to seeing every season are not always all that common each and every year.

    Take for instance the Baltimore oriole. During the spring of 2019 I could barely keep my large oriole feeder filled because there were so many orioles wrestling each other for a spot on the feeder’s perching rail and to drink from one of only five ports. Never in my life had I observed so many orioles—before or since. And this spring? As near I could tell, I’ve seen only a few to maybe a half dozen pairs. Other people have reported similar observations as me (fewer orioles in 2020 than in 2019).

    Even so, when it comes to Baltimore orioles, few birds please me more than observing and listening to these delightfully colorful and lively birds.

    Baltimore orioles belong to the same family as do blackbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and grackles do, Icteridae. This large family of birds are known to be acrobatic, especially blackbirds and orioles, as one can often observe these species clinging precariously on thin stalks of vegetation and on flimsy limbs of trees at curious positions while they feed, build nests, and perch. Indeed, spend a few minutes watching the antics of feeding orioles at one’s oriole feeders or jelly bowls, and you’ll know what I mean.

    One of the more fascinating aspects of Baltimore orioles are the nests they build. No other bird in North America, save for other species of orioles, builds such nests. The sock-like, pouch-nests that hang from limbs of deciduous trees such as elm, maple, aspen, and birch, are simply and unmistakably orioles’.

    Surprisingly difficult to spot hanging from a tree, one normally doesn’t notice an oriole nest until long after the nesting season has concluded and the leaves fall to the ground in late autumn. It is then that we usually spot these unusual looking nests and are sometimes surprised by just how close to our houses a nesting pair of orioles were.

    To observe Baltimore orioles build their highly unique nests is a privilege. The bulbous and somewhat delicate looking nests are anything but delicate. Consisting of primarily fibers and strands of various plant material, oriole nests also include other materials such as hair, string, and even discarded fishing line. Amazingly, the materials are expertly weaved and held together not unlike that of a crocheted cotton sock. And though males will assist their mate in collecting nest material, it’s the female that’s the skilled weaver and builder.

    Many theories have been posed about how this innate nest building behavior evolved. One popular explanation is that the oriole’s nest provides the best possible protection for eggs and nestlings. Strongly constructed, the deep pouch and small entrance affords superior protection from elements and predators alike. In fact, so well-built are oriole nests that it’s common to observe old and long abandoned oriole nests dangling from tree limbs several seasons after its one and only use.

    Obviously one of the most endearing attributes of orioles is that we can attract them to our backyards and various feeders we eagerly place out for them each spring. My oriole feeder is a standard and popular perching model with bee and wasp-proof ports. Ruby-throated hummingbirds have learned that they can access the covered ports with their thin beaks, so the feeder serves two species of sugar-water loving birds. Three or four parts water to one part sugar will do the trick nicely.

    Another favorite oriole attractant is jelly or jam placed in bowls and other containers at visible sites throughout the yard. And yet another oriole goodie is orange slices skewered onto a nails or screws or onto special feeders designed to accommodate these prepared fruits.

    With nine species of orioles occurring in North America, we Minnesotans typically only observe the Baltimore oriole, although the brick-red colored orchard oriole also includes Minnesota as its home. That we have the Baltimore oriole singing its sweet whistled song and filling our eyesight with beautiful orange and black colors is a treat as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.  

    Blane enjoys getting feedback from readers and hearing about your stories from Minnesota’s great outdoors. Email him at bklemek@yahoo.com.