American Ornithology: Volume 1.

BALTIMORE ORIOLE. (Oriolus Baltimore.)

This obscurity I have endeavoured to clear up in the present volume of this work, Plate IV., by exhibiting the male and female of the Oriolus spurius in their different changes of dress, as well as in their perfect plumage; and by introducing representations of the eggs of both, have, I hope, put the identity of these two species beyond all future dispute or ambiguity.

Almost the whole genus of orioles belong to America, and, with a few exceptions, build pensile nests.[15] Few of them, however, equal the baltimore in the construction of these receptacles for their young, and in giving them, in such a superior degree, convenience, warmth, and security. For these purposes he generally fixes on the high bending extremities of the branches, fastening strong strings of hemp or flax round two forked twigs, corresponding to the intended width of the nest: with the same materials, mixed with quantities of loose tow, he interweaves or fabricates a strong firm kind of cloth, not unlike the substance of a bat in its raw state, forming it into a pouch of six or seven inches in depth, lining it substantially with various soft substances, well interwoven with the outward netting, and, lastly, finishes with a layer of horse-hair; the whole being shaded from the sun and rain by a natural penthouse, or canopy of leaves. As to a hole being left in the side for the young to be fed and void their excrements through, as Pennant and others relate, it is certainly an error: I, have never met with anything of the kind in the nest of the baltimore.

Though birds of the same species have, generally speaking, a common form of building, yet, contrary to the usually received opinion, they do not build exactly in the same manner. As much difference will be found in the style, neatness, and finishing of the nests of the baltimores, as in their voices. Some appear far superior workmen to others: and probably age may improve them in this, as it does in their colours. I have a number of their nests now before me, all completed, and with eggs. One of these, the neatest, is in the form of a cylinder, of five inches diameter, and seven inches in depth, rounded at bottom. The opening at top is narrowed, by a horizontal covering, to two inches and a half in diameter. The materials are flax, hemp, tow, hair, and wool, woven into a complete cloth; the whole tightly sewed through and through with long horse-hairs, several of which measure two feet in length. The bottom is composed of thick tufts of cow-hair, sewed also with strong horse-hair. This nest was hung on the extremity of the horizontal branch of an apple tree, fronting the southeast; was visible a hundred yards off, though shaded from the sun; and was the work of a very beautiful and perfect bird. The eggs are five, white, slightly tinged with flesh colour, marked on the greater end with purple dots, and on the other parts with long hair-like lines, intersecting each other in a variety of directions. I am thus minute in these particulars, from a wish to point out the specific difference between the true and bastard baltimore, which Dr Latham, and some others, suspect to be only the same bird in different stages of colour.

So solicitous is the baltimore to procure proper materials for his nest, that, in the season of building, the women in the country are under the necessity of narrowly watching their thread that may chance to be out bleaching, and the farmer to secure his young grafts; as the baltimore, finding the former, and the strings which tie the latter, so well adapted for his purpose, frequently carries off both; or, should the one be too heavy, and the other too firmly tied, he will tug at them a considerable time before he gives up the attempt. Skeins of silk and hanks of thread have been often found, after the leaves were fallen, hanging round the baltimore's nest; but so woven up and entangled as to be entirely irreclaimable. Before the introduction of Europeans, no such material could have been obtained here; but„ with the sagacity of a good architect, he has improved this circumstance to his advantage; and the strongest and best materials are uniformly found in those parts by which the whole is supported.

Their principal food consists of caterpillars, beetles, and bugs, particularly one of a brilliant glossy green, fragments of which I have almost always found in their stomach, and sometimes these only.

The song of the baltimore is a clear mellow whistle, repeated at short intervals as he gleans among the branches. There is in it a certain wild plaintiveness and naivete extremely interesting. It is not uttered with the rapidity of the ferruginous thrush (Turdus rufus), and some other eminent songsters; but with the pleasing tranquillity of a careless ploughboy, whistling merely for his own amusement. When alarmed by an approach to his nest, or any such circumstance, he makes a kind of rapid chirruping, very different frotn his usual note. This, however, is always succeeded by those mellow tones which seem so congenial to his nature.

High on yon poplar, clad in glossiest green,
The orange black-capped baltimore is seen;
The broad extended boughs still please him best,
Beneath their bending skirts he hangs his nest;
There his sweet mate, secure from every harm,
Broods o’er her spotted store, and wraps them warm;
Lists to the noontide hum of busy bees,
Her partner's mellow song, the brook, the breeze;
These day by day the lonely hours deceive,
From dewy morn to slow descending eve.
Two weeks elapsed, behold! a helpless crew
Claim all her care, and her affection too;
On wings of love the assiduous nurses fly,
Flowers, leaves, and boughs, abundant food supply;
Glad chants their guardian, as abroad he goes,
And waving breezes rock them to repose.

he baltimore inhabits North America, from Canada to Mexico, and is even found as far south as Brazil. Since the streets of our cities have been planted with that beautiful and stately tree, the Lombardy poplar, these birds are our constant visitors during the early part of summer; and, amid the noise and tumult of coaches, drays, wheelbarrows, and the din of the multitude, they are heard chanting “their native wood notes wild”; sometimes, too, within a few yards of an oysterman, who stands bellowing, with the lungs of a Stentor, under the shade of the same tree; so much will habit reconcile even birds to the roar of the city, and to sounds and noises that, in other circumstances, would put a whole grove of them to flight.

These birds are several years in receiving their complete plumage. Sometimes the whole tail of a male individual in spring is yellow, sometimes only the two middle feathers are black, and frequently the black on the back is skirted with orange, and the tail tipt with the same colour. Three years, I have reason to believe, are necessary to fix the full tint of the plumage, and then the male bird appears as already described.

[15] The true orioles, having the Oriolus galbula of Europe and Africa, with O. melanocephalus of India, as typical, are entirely excluded from the New World; nevertheless Wilson was perfectly correct, meaning the Icteri of Brisson, which are nearly confined to North and South America, represent the orioles in that country, and have now been arranged into several genera. These contain many species remarkable as well for their elegant form and bright and beautiful plumage, as for the singular and often matchless workmanship of their nests. The materials of the latter are woven and entwined in such a way as would defy the skill of the most expert sempstress, and unite all the requisites of dryness, security, and warmth. They are mostly pendulous from the ends of branches, and form thus a security from snakes or other depredators, which could easily reach them if placed on a more solid foundation. They are formed of the different grasses, of dry roots, lichens, long and. slender mosses, and, in the present instances mentioned by our author, of substances which could not occur in the early or really natural state of the country, but had been adopted either from necessity, or “with the sagacity of a good architect”, improving every circumstance to the best advantage. Among the different species, they vary in shape, front being round or resembling a compact ball, to nearly every bottle-shaped gradation of form, until they exceed three or four feet in length. Many species being gregarious, they breed numerously on the same tree, and. their nests, suspended from the pensile branches, and waving in the wind, render the landscape and woods singular to an unaccustomed eye, and present appearances which those only who have had the good. fortune to witness them in their native wilds can appreciate.

The female is given by Wilson in Plate LIII. in our second volume—Ed. [return]