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Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jun 22, 2017

All of the bird books say the hooded oriole comes back to California from Mexico in late March. They spend the winter on the Southwestern coast of Mexico and are permanent residents in Baja, the Mexican east coast and Belize. Very rare are the ones that winter in Southern California.

I am always fascinated to glance at pages of graphs and notations with dates from bird watchers who have made it their mission to record the comings and goings of a special bird. They can be seen in March by my friends who have orchards or in Fillmore invading the orange groves, but I very rarely see a flash of yellow in my backyard in April even if I sometimes hear a new song.

This yearly disappointment was grating on my nerves when I remembered a saying: “Feed them and they will come.” I have tested that with my own kids and with the docents at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center on a regular basis. If you have planned a meeting where you suspect nobody is going to show up, promise your volunteers you’ll feed them pizza, and the room will be full as if by magic.

I stumbled on this solution by accident. I had a hummingbird nest and started faithfully to hang a feeder so Mom would not have to look for food for very long. To my great surprise, the hooded oriole became an avid customer and was not afraid to come close to the house.

That was a nice surprise, indeed. Hooded orioles are lively birds but nervous and animated, bickering at the feeder, hanging upside down and flying away very fast in total panic if they see your shadow.

They must be the most beautiful birds you can see in your backyard. Their body is almost iridescent pale orange with sharp black wings with a white bar and a shiny black throat patch that goes up to the beak and the eyes. The body is about 8 inches long, slender and elegant. Females and juveniles are more drab; they do not have the black on the throat, but they have the same elegant body, and if you see a male, often the female can be seen a few minutes later or vice versa.

It is well known that orioles prefer to nest in palm trees. This is actually one of the reasons their territory has increased considerably farther north. As more developments are being built and as the palm tree seems to be California’s signature tree of excellence,” the hooded orioles are taking advantage of the situation and making nests where the possibility occurs. If there is no palm tree, they have adopted eucalyptus and sycamore trees, so the possibilities are endless.

I have sometimes found a nest on the ground in the fall, and I have marveled at the intricacy and ingenuity of the design. It looks like a hanging pouch. It is made of fiber and grass woven together to make the shape. The inside is lined with soft down, hair and feathers. The female builds the nest, I found out, but the male brings the supplies.

What is really special about this nest is the way it hangs. The female looks for a large leaf, pokes holes from below and threads the fibers through, so in a way she sews the nest to the leaf. It hangs down a little bit like a hammock would. The nest is ready in three to six days, sewing included.

Orioles like to have a canopy above their nest, and if they cannot find a good, strong leaf to serve the purpose, they will hang the nest from a man-made structure, under the eaves of a house or under the shade of a light fixture.

Along the coast in California, they will often have two broods in a season before leaving for migration. August is a time of feeding frenzy to put on weight to prepare for the long trip. Time is short as the males depart in late August, the young and females in the second week of September.

Their menu is varied. Their beak is strong but thin, so they can reach insects in tree bark easily. They can dig into fruits for the juice they love, and they can get to the sugar water in the small holes of a humming bird feeder, sucking the juice with a long tongue. They feed on the nectar from flowers, piercing the base of the flower and sucking the juice, and they visit bird feeders for seeds. They eat berries and favor insects of all sorts.

Often, you will hear a hooded oriole before you see it, they are shy and nervous but their musical song is also jumbled and loud, sometimes the male imitates other birds just to add to your confusion from a bird you can hear so well but cannot see.

Hooded orioles’ territory has expanded with urbanization, and they are doing just fine in California. But their nests can be affected by the crow population eating their eggs. Also, their nest is often hanging from the lower branches in a palm tree, which can be a problem during tree trimming as those branches are the most accessible. Please trim the trees in winter when the nesting season is over, if that is possible.

Taking a photo of a hooded oriole requires a huge amount of time, much patience, a good telephoto lens and a love for this beautiful bird. I do not even try, but I enjoy their happy song while they remain hidden in trees and shrubs or chattering during disputes with each other, which happen frequently.

They will be here until the third week of August, so catch a glimpse while you can, or hang a hummingbird feeder like I did.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Denise says:

    I, too, enjoy these beautiful birds at my hummingbird feeder. They are the only other bird besides the hummingbirds that stop by for a quick sip. We do have a palm tree just across from the feeder they must be nesting in while the hummingbirds prefer the bottle brush bush. Thank you for this most informative article.

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