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Blane Klemek: Orioles, too, are a sure sign of spring

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I observed my first oriole on May 14 in Detroit Lakes.

The telltale whistle of the bird alerted me, and I began searching for the beautiful orange and black plumage pattern. I soon spotted the bird as my eyes feasted on the brilliant orange and black colors contrasting vividly with the green grass and blue sky. I noticed something else, too.

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Male orioles, singing their wonderful whistle-song I have grown to associate with mid-May and a sure sign that spring is definitely here, are prolific songsters, albeit somewhat abbreviated. As soon as the females are on the nest and nestlings hatch, the songs of the oriole seem to disappear.

Interestingly, and the thing I noticed, is the oriole I heard singing in Detroit Lakes along the shore of Lake Sallie, is the exact same whistle I enjoyed listening to last spring and early summer. I am certain it is the same bird. His song has a quality not unlike that of a catchy tune one cannot seem to forget. Once I heard it, I knew it was my friend from last year. It had to be; no other oriole I’ve ever enjoyed listening to sounds like him.

Indeed, the handsome and animated Baltimore oriole has returned to our northern towns and country woodlands once again.

I normally hear my first oriole before I actually see them. And it has always been a male oriole I observe first. Like many migrating birds, males often are the first to arrive at northern breeding grounds, and the Baltimore oriole is no exception. The feisty fellows are searching for likely territories they can claim as their own and are soon chasing after other wayward males daring to enter their respective domains.

Belonging to the family Icteridae and related to blackbirds, grackles, and meadowlarks, orioles are considered to be arboreal, or tree loving icterids. Like many other neo-tropical migrants, orioles arrive in northern Minnesota by mid-May. Neo-tropical migrants, which also include a host of other birds such as warblers, vireos, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and others, come from as far as southern Mexico and South America.

Depending on when your bird book was published, 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, the Baltimore oriole is sometimes classified as a “race” of the so-called “northern oriole.” In some bird 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 widely recognized as separate species — again.

The reason for the taxonomic flip-flop has to do with these species of orioles’ propensity to hybridize and the obvious confusion such interbreeding poses for birders and ornithologists. Where their ranges overlap, the Baltimore, an essentially eastern oriole, regularly hybridizes with the essentially western Bullock’s oriole and, hence, the problem.

Are the Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles separate species or not? One of the standards of species separation is the inability to interbreed, and since they can and do interbreed, the two are obviously very closely related and, perhaps, should not be considered separate and unique species.

My goodness.

All I know is that the orioles that show up every year in Minnesota are handsome and fascinating birds. The loud and clear flute-like whistle of the Baltimore oriole is a welcome song of backyards and woodlands alike. I even find their annoying chatter-call a joy to hear and something I look forward to each and every spring.

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, suspended nests are the result of tightly woven construction, strong knots and superior building materials.

Seeing such intricate nests have always impressed me. How, I wonder, can a bird — any bird for that matter — possessing only beak and feet, build such elaborate nesting structures that human hands, fingers and opposable thumbs would have great difficulty duplicating?

If you don’t already own an oriole feeder, now is a good time to purchase one and fill with sugar-sweetened water. One part sugar to three or four parts of water will work just fine; no need to purchase expensive “nectar” mix, nor is it necessary to add water color. 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 jelly and other fruit jam work great, too. Orioles are very fond of fruit jams and jelly.

Without question, marveling at the color and antics of our seasonal avian visitors, the Baltimore orioles, is something to look forward to, welcome and savor every spring and summer as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

— Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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