Orioles

… they chatter like blackbirds; the fire bursts forth on their backs when they lift their wings.

– Thoreau,The Journal, 1852

Thoreau quickly arrives at the oriole essence: these blackbird relatives share some similarities of shape and chattering calls with their plainer cousins, but are distinguished by their brilliant golden plumage, rivaled by few other local birds. While most typical humans tend to dismiss blackbirds, dull-colored and ubiquitous, as almost definitionally uninteresting, I have yet to meet a single person who can react to orioles with such cavalier disdain. They are arresting – fiery, flying forms of that rich golden color which seizes the attention and respect of even the most indifferent observer of the sensible world. “Oriole” is derived from Latin aureus, “golden”, for a reason. Think of a field of poppies or a blazing sunset to place yourself in the proper part of the palette. Now imagine that color concentrated in a single living bird, present for a silent, startling moment amidst the earth-toned canvas of your yard. Browns and grays, towhees and titmice; greens and blues, leaves and sky – all very fine things in their way. But orioles seem to stand unbridgeably apart, fleeting even when familiar, golden even among the finest panoply of spring.

Ask an average citizen of our region to comb through their memories of natural beauty and they may well recall these other images of gold, the poppies and the sunsets, as instances when a splash of tropical paint elevated a memory above the mundane grayscale of everyday existence. Why don’t orioles enjoy the same level of popular repute? Quite simply because most people don’t recognize that they are here. Orioles are moderately-sized birds with specific habitat requirements that somewhat limit their interactions with humanity at large. They are here only during the summer months – primarily April through August, passing the remainder of the year in Mexico. And they are limited in number, with comparatively few birds present even in the appropriate habitat. Orioles are easily avoided. But once seen they are hard to forget.

Here in Novato, and in the Bay Area at large, we have two species of orioles: the hooded oriole and the Bullock’s oriole. Both are well worth knowing.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole by Katie Houck

Nearly all hooded oriole nest sites here can be referred to by street address.

– Holly Peake, Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas

Hooded oriole nest by Neil Solomon

For most people, the hooded oriole is the more familiar of the two. This is because of their very specific idea of what constitutes an appropriate nesting site, according to which theory they construct elaborate hanging baskets almost exclusively in a particular species of tree, the California fan palm. This is the only native palm of the western US, with a wild range including southern California deserts, but it is present in our area only as a planted ornamental. Hooded orioles did not breed in our latitudes, therefore, until the 1930s; their northward expansion has only been made possible by our horticultural activity. Take a minute and look at one of these nests, constructed out of the palm fibers that are actually sewn into the lower fronds, with the leaf pierced and the thread pulled through. Specificity of evolved technique requires specificity of materials – this is why they need palms.

Given the murmur of disapprobation that one sometimes hears regarding “newer” species, let me be completely clear: I’m very glad that hooded orioles are here! There are many birds that have evolved varying degrees of cooperation with humans. When we think of species that thrive under human cohabitation, we tend to think of either the companion species like dogs or cats that have been bred and trained specifically for harmony with people, or of certain wild species that have adapted so well to human-constructed environments that they seem to lose some of their wildness and be taken for granted as components, not always welcome, of our urban systems (pigeons, house sparrows, rats).

But hooded orioles retain a great deal more skittish distrust and are properly placed in a nice Goldilocks range – they are not so wild that we have to regretfully classify their history of human interaction on the well-known scale from detrimental to disastrous (we’ve expanded their range, rather than threatened them with extinction), but neither have they become tame and domesticated until they feel like pets or pests. Some birds of this category have a long history with people, like barn owls, barn swallows, or black phoebes, all of which now nest primarily on human structures such as buildings or bridges. Our population of hooded orioles is one of the newer members of this fraternity and represents the ideal situation where a widely desired form of human habitation (single-family homes with yards) turns out to be not merely survivable, but actively inviting to avian colonization. We could often wish our human impacts on the natural world were smaller, but I can’t let that regret prevent me from enjoying the odd instances when those impacts are positive.

Male hooded orioles are fairly unmistakable: a black throat and face is surrounded by a golden yellow body and hood. To complete the costume, the tail of the hooded oriole is also black, as are the wings, which sport bold white wingbars. People sometimes seem to expect that the “hood” should be the dark part, but it’s not – instead, you can think of their dark face as the shadowy area underneath their hood. Sure, a lot of monks, ringwraiths, and dementors wear generally dark garments, but it’s the area concealed under the hood that’s really black, like a moonless night illumined only by the cold glint of unalterable malice. At least in the latter two cases. And in that of hooded orioles, who are obviously not monks. That’s practically proverbial:

Hooded oriole: Icterus cucullatus (hooded bird of the Icterus – kind of yellow – genus)

Old Latin saying: Cucullus non facit monachum. (A hood doesn’t make a monk.)

Ergo: ringwraiths in golden robes.

Male hooded oriole by Susie Kelly
Where’s the black? Under the hood.

Females are a bit more obscure, and look somewhat like gargantuan female goldfinches, with a relatively dull yellow front side and grayish wings. You could potentially confuse them with Bullock’s orioles (described below), but context is usually a sufficient guide: if it is associating with male hooded orioles, if it is hanging around palm trees, or really if it is in your yard at all, it is probably a hooded oriole. The plumage difference to look for between female hooded and Bullock’s orioles is that female hoodeds have a more or less continuous tone of yellow all down the belly, while female Bullock’s orioles have distinctly white bellies beneath a yellow face and breast.

The girls at the nectar and jelly trough – Susie Kelly

The other obviously convivial aspect of human-oriole relations, beyond our provision of nesting materials and locations, is the fact that we can feed orioles directly. Hooded orioles are regular visitors at sugar water feeders that imitate flower nectar (either hummingbird feeders that have sufficiently large feeding ports or models designed specifically for orioles) and at jelly feeders, usually some kind of small multi-purpose little hanging dish in which you can dollop a few scoops of grape, blackberry, or other dark jelly. While you may often see pictures or read stories of feeding orioles orange slices, this does not seem to a preferred food among our hooded orioles (most tales of orange-feeding seem to involve the eastern Baltimore oriole), so I would recommend sticking to sugar water and jelly with perhaps a dash of mealworms. (You are, of course, welcome to come visit us at the store for an appropriate oriole feeder, thereby funding these words you’re reading.)

Bullock’s Oriole

Male Bullock’s oriole by budgora on Flickr

Our second oriole is less familiar to most people. Like the hooded oriole, Bullock’s orioles winter in Mexico and then arrive here in Novato in late March or April to build their nests and raise their young before making the southward journey in August and September. However, not being subject to the ineluctable magnetism of the fan palm, members of this species tend to keep their distance from human habitation. They instead prefer to establish the nursery in native woodland, preferably located near water. The easiest place to see them here is at Stafford Lake, where they often nest in oaks within a stone’s throw or two of the reservoir or Novato Creek. Some also nest regularly on Mount Burdell, particularly on the western side along the lower section of the Deer Camp fire road, not too far from a small waterway.

Bullock’s oriole nest by Trish Gussler. Note the ribbons.

“Less familiar” does not mean that Bullock’s orioles are particularly rare or obscure. Compared to the newcomer hooded orioles, they are after all, our long-established native, comfortable in a variety of oak savannah, woodland, and riparian plant communities. They are merely not as intimate as hooded orioles or other birds that habitually nest right in our yards. Bullock’s orioles are significantly more flexible than the palm-fixated hoodeds when it comes to their nest construction, but they have also been known to take advantage of our unintentional largesse. Long and fibrous plant materials are not always common in nature, and so in times when or places where we filled the neighboring fields with horses, the plentiful equine locks apparently found particular favor with these birds.

When Bullock’s orioles do approach our areas of modern activity (where we tend to always leave our traces), they have been known to integrate string, yarn, fishing line, and the material known as “plastic Easter grass” into their nests. I think that oriole nesting may be the most persuasive argument I’ve heard for the existence of such a thing as “plastic Easter grass,” but given the abundant alternatives available for the purposes of both orioles and people, I think we could still safely forgo the production of fake disposable grass without any great loss of worldwide jubilation. Instead, let’s be wise and prudent and responsibly focus our limited planetary resources where they’ll do the most good, like on those plastic eggs that you can put chocolate inside of.

As with the hooded orioles, Bullock’s follow the basic pattern of spectacular males and more modest females. This is a common enough modus operandi among birds, where males have to demonstrate their health and fitness one way or another (energy-intensive, conspicuous and unadaptive plumage; hours and hours of singing endless encores), and females have to do the bulk of the nest construction and incubation (at least those big socks the orioles nest in give mom some privacy and concealment). As noted above, female Bullock’s can be distinguished from female hooded orioles by their white bellies, versus the more or less continuous pale yellow on hoodeds. Males have black wings with a large white patch, a black-tipped golden tail, and a facial pattern significantly different than that of their hooded cousins, with a black chin, eye line, and cap.

Female Bullock’s oriole by Linda Tanner. Note white belly, unlike hooded orioles.

Speaking of that black eye line – that’s just one way of looking at it. The other way to think of their face is that it has an orange-yellow eyebrow. That’s what they call it in Mexico, apparently, and they ought to know: calandria cejas naranjas – the orange-eyebrow oriole. In fact, I believe I have detected a conspiracy among the American Ornithological Union against recognition of “eyebrow” as a suitably professional term appropriate to formal bird names. Our white-crowned sparrow is known scientifically, for instance, as Zonotrichia leucophrys – the white-eyebrowed Zonotrichia. And yet neither of these birds nor any of our other birds with prominent eyebrows, like the Bewick’s wren, lark sparrow, or red-breasted nuthatch are named for that feature. Sure, they’re not really eyebrows in the hairy human sense, but I for my part am in favor of any bird name that makes visual sense, has some memorable meaning, and helps us to relate to birds in a more convivial fashion. More like friends, less like museum specimens or monuments to unknown dead people.

Male Bullock’s oriole by lostinfog

However, “Bullock’s oriole” is what we have to work with, and I’ll do my best to attach some meaning to this name, though the effort needs rather more research and ingenuity than “eyebrow oriole” would have required. “Bullock’s oriole” has actually only become a full, independent species in relatively recent years, following a spell as merely the western version of the “northern oriole.” The split is now firmly established however: the east can rest easy with their long-accustomed Baltimore oriole, and we will make do with Mr. Bullock.

Who was he? The bird was named by  ornithologist William Swainson in recognition of fellow Englishman William Bullock, who collected the first specimen known to European science while travelling in Mexico in the 1820s. An amateur naturalist and professional showman, Mr. Bullock’s business in the new world was gathering both animal specimens and cultural artifacts for exhibition in his private museum. This was apparently a lucrative field, with hundreds of thousands of everyday English citizens flocking to his museum to take in the awe-inspiring wonders of the wider world. Of course, success in such endeavors requires a certain panache in dramatic hyperbole. For example, consider Bullock’s catalogue entry describing a display of a taxidermied tiger fighting a boa constrictor:

The Royal Tiger (F. Tigrina). This is represented expiring in one of those dreadful combats which take place betwixt this powerful and sanguinary destroyer of the human species, and the immense serpent of India, called the Boa Constrictor, in whose enormous folds its unavailing strength is nearly exhausted, and its bones crushed and broken by the strength and weight of its tremendous adversary.

Sounds exciting. Mr. Bullock seems to be a worthy member of the grand English tradition of shameless promoters, perhaps best exemplified by Mrs. Jarley of Jarley’s Waxworks in Dicken’s The Old Curiosity Shop:

‘That, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Mrs. Jarley, ‘is Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let ‘em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offence. Let this be a warning to all young ladies to be particular in the character of the gentlemen of their choice. Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.’

The tone seems about the same.

A Bullock exhibit. Fun for families, couples, bent-over gentlemen, and ladies who like to pose on benches in front of zebras.

William Bullock was not a great ornithologist, but he was a great popularizer of natural history. The crown of his museum was a gallery grandiloquently entitled THE PANTHERION (I don’t know if he put it all in capitals like a Roman temple inscription, but I would), filled with naturalistic dioramas that placed the taxidermied specimens in lively situations amongst modeled plants and painted panoramas. The dioramas were always among my favorite parts of the natural history museums of my childhood in New York and Chicago, and I am somewhat saddened that many were judged too old fashioned for our glossily entertaining Academy of Sciences (though the Oakland Museum of California still has an impressive collection).

Bullock’s efforts predated our classic American museums by several decades and achieved a vitality which in some respects continues to excel our fancy modern tools of nature education, with high definition drone footage and various forms of web connectivity integrating the world’s fauna with our vast streams of human data. What a Bullock exhibit was missing in scientific comprehensiveness, it made up for with memorability; what it lacked in motion, it compensated for with life-size, three-dimensional, physical presence and tactility. I do not believe that the highest goal of nature education is to convey information. I believe it is to to convince a person of the reality of a place, to expand her sense of existence beyond the utilitarian banality of our signs and schedules, and to fill her with a hunger for further contact with the non-human world. William Bullock understood this. Filled with unquenchable curiosity, he threw all his resources of science, capital, and personal ingenuity into spreading that benign fervor.  Among the fog and smokestacks of industrial London, who would not be glad to step beneath a faux Egyptian colonnade, pass through a cavern of ferns and trickling water, and emerge into the transporting scenes of THE PANTHERION?

Are dioramas boring, creepy, or outdated? Tell it to these little people admiring the gemsbok antelope at the American Museum of Natural History.

Header photo: Male hooded oriole by Don Bartling

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