Maryland State Bird – Baltimore Oriole – Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole

State Bird of Maryland

By John James Audubon,
F. R. SS. L. & E.

VOLUME IV.

THE BALTIMORE ORIOLE, OR HANG-NEST.
[Northern Oriole.]

ICTERUS BALTIMORE, Linn.
[Icterus galbula.]

PLATE CCXVII.–MALE, YOUNG MALE,FEMALE and NEST.

No traveller who is at all gifted with the faculty of observation, canascend that extraordinary river, the Mississippi, in the first days ofautumn, without feeling enchanted by the varied vegetation which adornsits alluvial shores:–The tall cotton-tree descending to the very marginof the stream, the arrow-shaped ash mixing its branches with those of thepecan and black walnut, immense oaks and numerous species of hickory, coveringwith their foliage the densely tangled canes, from amongst which, at everystep, vines of various kinds shoot up, winding round the stems and interlacingtheir twigs and tendrils, stretching from one branch to another, untilthey hive reached and overspread the whole, like a verdant canopy, formingone solid mass of richest vegetation, in the fore ground of the picture;whilst, wherever the hills are in view, the great magnolias, the hollies,and the noble pines, are seen gently waving their lofty heads to the breeze.

The current becomes rapid, and ere long several of the windings of thegreat stream have been met and passed, and with these new scenes presentthemselves to the view. The forest at this place, as if in doleful mourningat the sight of the havoc made on its margin by the impetuous and regardlesswaters, has thrown over her a ragged veil, produced by the long danglingmasses that spread from branch to branch over the cypress trees. The dejectedIndian’s camp lies in your sight. He casts a melancholy glance over thescene, and remembers that he is no longer the peaceful and sole possessorof the land. Islands, one after another, come in sight, and at every windingof the stream you see boats propelled by steam ascending the river, andothers, without such aid, silently gliding with the current.

Much might the traveller find to occupy his mind, and lead him intospeculations regarding the past, the present, and the future, were he notattracted by the clear mellow notes, that issue from the woods, and gratifiedby the sight of the brilliant Oriole now before you. In solitudes likethese, the traveller might feel pleased with any sound, even the howl ofthe wolf, or the still more dismal bellow of the alligator. Then how delightfulmust it be to hear the melody resulting from thousands of musical voicesthat come from some neighbouring tree, and which insensibly leads the mind,with whatever it may previously have been occupied, first to the contemplationof the wonders of nature, and then to that of the Great Creator himself.

Now we have ascended the mighty river, have left it, and entered thestill more enchanting Ohio, and yet never for a day have we been withoutthe company of the Oriole. Here, amongst the pendulous branches of thelofty tulip-trees, it moves gracefully up and down, seeking in the expandingleaves and opening blossoms the caterpillar and the green beetle, whichgenerally contribute to its food. Well, reader, it was one of these penduloustwigs which I took when I made the drawing before you. But instead of havingcut it on the banks of the Ohio, I found it in the State of Louisiana,to which we shall return.

The Baltimore Oriole arrives from the south, perhaps from Mexico, orperhaps from a more distant region, and enters Louisiana as soon as springcommences there. It approaches the planter’s house, and searches amongstthe surrounding trees for a suitable place in which to settle for the season.It prefers, I believe, the trees that grow on the sides of a gentle declivity.The choice of a twig being made, the male Oriole becomes extremely conspicuous.He flies to the ground, searches for the longest and driest filaments ofthe moss, which in that State is known by the name of Spanish beard, andwhenever he finds one fit for his purpose, ascends to the favourite spotwhere the nest is to be, uttering all the while a continued chirrup, whichseems to imply that he knows no fear, but on the contrary fancies himselfthe acknowledged king of the woods. This sort of chirruping becomes louder,and is emitted in an angry tone, whenever an enemy approaches, or the birdis accidentally surprised; the sight of a cat or a dog being always likelyto produce it. No sooner does he reach the branches, than with bill andclaws, aided by an astonishing sagacity, he fastens one end of the mossto a twig, with as much art as a sailor might do, and takes up the otherend, which he secures also, but to another twig a few inches off, leavingthe thread floating the air like a swing, the curve of which is perhapsseven or eight inches from the twigs. The female comes to his assistancewith another filament of moss, or perhaps some cotton thread, or otherfibrous substance, inspects the work which her mate has done, and immediatelycommences her operations, placing each thread in a contrary direction tothose arranged by her lordly mate, and making the whole cross and recross,so as to form an irregular net-work. Their love increases daily as theysee the graceful fabric approaching perfection, until their conjugal affectionand faith become as complete as in any species of birds with which I amacquainted.

The nest has now been woven from the bottom to the top, and so securedthat no tempest can carry it off without breaking the branch to which itis suspended. Remark what follows. This nest contains no warming substance,such as wool, cotton, or cloth, but is almost entirely composed of theSpanish moss, interwoven in such a manner that the air can easily passthrough it. The parents no doubt are aware of the intense heat which willexist ere long in this part of the world, and moreover take especial careto place their nest on the north-east side of the trees. On the contrary,had they gone as far as Pennsylvania or New York, they would have formedit of the warmest and softest materials, and have placed it in a positionwhich would have left it exposed to the sun’s rays; the changes in theweather during the early period of incubation being sometimes so greatthere, that the bird looks on these precautions as necessary to ensurethe life of its brood against intense cold, should it come, while it knowsthat the heat in these northern latitudes will not be so great as to incommodethem. I have observed these sensible differences in the formation and positionof the nests of the Baltimore Oriole, a great many times, as no doubt haveother persons. The female lays from four to six eggs, and in Louisianafrequently rears two broods in a season. The period of incubation is fourteendays. The eggs are about an inch in length, rather broadly ovate, palebrown, dotted, spotted, and tortuously lined with dark brown.

The movements of these birds as they run among the branches of treesdiffer materially from those of almost all others. They cling frequentlyby the feet in order to reach an insect at such a distance from them asto require the full extension of their neck, body, and legs, without lettinggo their hold. They sometimes glide, as it were, along a small twig, andat other times move sidewise for a few steps. Their motions are elegantand stately. Their song consists of three or four, or at most eight orten, loud, full, and mellow notes, extremely agreeable to the ear.

A day or two before the young are quite able to leave the nest, theyoften cling to the outside, and creep in and out of it like young Woodpeckers.After leaving the nest, they follow the parents for nearly a fortnight,and are fed by them. As soon as the mulberries and figs become ripe, theyresort to these fruits, and are equally fond of sweet cherries, strawberries,and others. During spring, their principal food is insects, which theyseldom pursue on the wing, but which they search for with great activity,among the leaves and branches. I have seen the young of the first broodout early in May, and of the second in July. As soon as they are fullyable to take care of themselves, they generally part from each other, andleave the country, as their parents had come, that is, singly.

During migration, the flight of the Baltimore Oriole is performed highabove all the trees, and mostly during day, as I have usually observedthem alighting, always singly, about the setting of the sun, uttering anote or two and darting into the lower branches to feed, and afterwardsto rest. To assure myself of this mode of travelling by day, I marked theplace where a beautiful male had perched one evening, and on going to thespot next morning, long before dawn, I had the pleasure of hearing hisfirst notes as light appeared, and saw him search awhile for food, andafterwards mount in the air, making his way to warmer climes. Their flightis straight and continuous.

This beautiful bird is easily kept in cages, and may be fed on driedfigs, raisins, hard-boiled eggs, and insects. When shot they will oftenclench the twig so firmly as to remain hanging fast to it until dislodgedby another shot or a blow against the twig.

The Baltimore Oriole, although found throughout the Union, is so partialto particular sections or districts, that of two places not twenty milesdistant from each other, while none are to be seen in the one, a dozenpairs or more may be in the neighbourhood of the other. They are fondestof hilly grounds, refreshed by streams.

According to Dr. RICHARDSON this species ranges through the centraldistricts of the Fur Countries up to the 55th degree of latitude, arrivingon the Saskatchewan plains on the 10th of May. At this period I saw itbreeding and abundant in the Texas; but none were observed by me in Labradoror Newfoundland. I have ascertained to my perfect satisfaction, that themales of this elegant species obtain the full beauty of their plumage beforethe first winter after their birth, having seen several individuals takenfrom the nest and reared in aviaries acquire their full plumage by theend of September. They feed kindly and breed well in a state of confinement,taking great care of their young.

In the wild state I have frequently seen these birds feed on those beautifulgreen coleopterous insects called "May-bugs," but they seldomeat them in confinement. I have seen one reared from the nest so gentleas to follow and come to its owner, whenever he called to it. They do notbreed in the lower parts of South Carolina, but are found not unfrequentlybreeding at the distance of a hundred miles from the sea-coast of thatState. It is not uncommon in Nova Scotia.

It will be seen from the above that WILSON and all who have copied himhave erred in alleging, that the males of this species do not acquire theirfull plumage until the third year.

The eggs average seven and a half eighths in length, and five and three-fourthsin their greatest breadth. They are rather pointed at the smaller end.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE, Oriolus Baltimore, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. i.p. 23.
ICTERUS BALTIMORE, Bonap. Syn., p. 51.
BALTIMORE ORIOLE or GOLDEN ROBIN, Icterus Baltimore, Nutt,. Man.,vol. i.p. 152.
BALTIMORE ORIOLE, Icterus Baltimore, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p.66;vol. v. p. 278.

Second and third quills longest, fourth longer than first; tail slightlyrounded. Male with the head, throat, sides, and hind part of the neck,with the fore part of the back, black; lower parts, rump, upper tail-coverts,and smaller wing-coverts rich orange, passing into orange-red on the breast;wings black, the secondary coverts largely tipped, and the quills marginedwith white; tail black, all the feathers tipped with rich yellow, the outerfor half their length, the middle on a very small space. Female considerablysmaller, with the upper part of the head, hind neck, sides of the neckat the middle, and anterior half of the back, brownish-black, the feathersedged with dull yellowish-green; hind part of the back light brownish-yellow,purer on the rump; tail yellowish-brown, the middle feathers darker; wing-covertsblackish-brown, quills dark brown, all margined with whitish; first rowof small coverts and secondary coverts largely tipped with white; loralspace, a band over the eye, and another beneath it, dull yellow; belowthe latter the cheeks spotted with dusky; lower parts yellowish-orange,duller than in the male, paler behind; some dusky streaks on the throat.Young similar to the female, but with the upper parts brownish-yellow,the head and back faintly spotted with dusky.

Male, 7 3/4, 12. Female, 7, 11.

In summer dispersed over the United States, to Nova Scotia. Columbiariver. Texas. Abundant. Migratory.

A male preserved in spirits presents the following characters. The palateascends anteriorly, and has two prominent soft ridges, at the anteriorextremity of which is a slight protuberance, analogous to that of the Buntings,but only rudimentary or less developed; beyond it is a median broad ridgegradually tapering to the point. The posterior aperture of the nares islinear, margined with pointed papillae. The tongue is 6 twelfths long,emarginate and papillate at the base, slightly grooved above, horny inthe greater part of its length, and tapering to a deeply slit point. Theoesophagus, is 2 inches 5 twelfths long; at the upper part its diameter isabout 4 twelfths; it passes along the right side of the neck, forming anelongated dilatation, of which the greatest breadth is 6 twelfths; andon entering the thorax, [a b c], contracts to 3 twelfths. The proventriculus,[c d], is 3 1/2 twelfths in breadth. The stomach, [d e], is an oblong gizzard,7 twelfths long, 5 twelfths broad, situated obliquely, its fundus beingdirected toward the right side. The lateral muscles are moderately developed;the epithelium longitudinally rugous, tough, and of a reddish-brown colour.The contents of the stomach are remains of insects. The intestine is shortand of moderate width, being 7 1/4 inches long, its diameter in the duodenalportion 2 1/2 twelfths. The coeca, which come off at the distance of 10twelfths from the extremity, are very small, 2 twelfths long, 1/2 twelfthin width. The cloaca is globular, and 7 twelfths in diameter.

The trachea is 1 inch 10 twelfths long, its breadth anteriorly 1 1/2twelfths, at the lower part 1 twelfth. The rings, about 70, are well ossified,and considerably flattened. The inferior larynx has four pairs of musclesbesides the sterno-tracheal. The bronchi have about 12 half rings.

In another individual the intestine is 7 inches 9 twelfths long. Thecontents of the stomach are remains of insects and particles of quartz.THE TULIP TREE.

Portions copyright © Richard R. Buonanno, 1995
Web version of John James Audubon’s work. “The Birds of America”
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