Bird Watcher's General Store

Orioles Go South - 12/24/04


Dear Bird Folks:

The other night I was putting Christmas lights on the trees in front of my house when I spotted an oriole's nest that was half full of snow. Seeing the nest made me wonder what the orioles do at Christmas time. As I'm settling down for my long winter's nap, I'd like to know where do the orioles go in the winter and what are they doing while they are away.

- Erin, Saratoga, NY

Very Nice Erin,

That's a nice image that you painted, about the nest full of snow. Cold, quiet winter nights are a good time to appreciate nature. Sometimes, while walking at night, I will stop by an abandoned nest and imagine that only a few months earlier the same nest was alive with a flurry of activity. The nest was full of hungry baby birds that were tended to by frantic parents and fed with hundreds of very annoyed worms. Now all is quiet, the nest is empty and, in all likelihood, will never have baby birds in it again. For the most part songbirds do not reuse the same nest. And even if they wanted to reuse the nest, by the time they returned in the spring a rich group of New York City apartment dwellers will probably have had it torn down.

Baltimore Orioles are one of over 300 species of birds that are known as "neotropical migrants." They are birds that breed in the north but spend the winter in the tropics. Neotropical means "tropics of the new world." Sure, they could have called them "migrants from the new world tropics", but then everyone would understand and what fun would that be? In the case of orioles, the tropics refers to Central America, for that is where most of them spend the winter.

I visited Costa Rica a few years ago. One of the first things that I noticed, besides how hot it was and that I was the only guy wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, was the number of orioles. Sure there were all kinds of crazy native birds, with wild colors and hard to understand accents, but the orioles were everywhere. Amazingly, the vast majority of all the orioles from both the U.S. and Canada jam into that skinny little Central American land mass each winter, creating an impressive sight and a whole lot of nervous oranges.

Studies have shown that orioles not only return to the same location each spring, but they also return to the same wintering grounds. The millions of birds that head out across our southern border in the fall all have a specific place to go. As usual, to prevent over booking, nature has them all assigned to a precise location. And when they get there, they all seem to get along. There is none of the territorial feuding that is so fun to watch back here during the spring.

In recent years a population of orioles have been avoiding the trip to the tropics and are spending their winters in Florida. I'm not sure not exactly why the birds have chosen to remain in Florida. One guess could be that the birds are making good use of the wide variety of tropical plants that have been introduced to the Florida landscape or perhaps they just love being able to play bingo every night of the week.

On their wintering grounds, orioles do pretty much the same thing that they do here except for nesting. They chow down on tropical fruit, nectar and insects, while they relax and work on getting some good color. They need to be tanned, rested and ready for their return in the spring.

All day long I see people who are buying special holiday "treats" for their backyard birds. Why? It's a bit silly to think that birds, or any other kind of wildlife, have an awareness of holidays. They do it because it's fun and makes them feel good. Heck, if I happen to be in a good mood on a particular year, I sometimes do the same thing. But obviously, birds have no idea about this Christmas thing and they don't really care. They are just trying to survive from one day to the next. Our holidays are important to us but mean little to birds. The one exception is Flag Day. For some strange reason birds love Flag Day and no one knows why.

Enjoy your long winter's nap, Erin. When you awaken, the weather will be warmer, the orioles will be back and the horses will be racing in Saratoga. Just keep the orioles away from the race track, they have enough problems with bingo.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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