Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Baltimore Oriole

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Ornithological Biography by John James Audubon
The Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole (Audubon).jpg

THE BALTIMORE ORIOLE.

Icterus Baltimore. Daud.

PLATE XII. Male in different states of Plumage, and Nest.


No traveller who is at all gifted with the faculty of observation, can ascend that extraordinary river, the Mississippi, in the first days of autumn, without feeling enchanted by the varied vegetation which adorns its alluvial shores:—The tall Cotton-tree descending to the very margin of the stream, the arrow-shaped Ash mixing its branches with those of the Pecan and Black Walnut, immense Oaks and numerous species of Hickory, covering with their foliage the densely tangled Canes, from amongst which, at every step. Vines of various kinds shoot up, winding round the stems and interlacing their twigs and tendrils, stretching from one branch to another, until they have reached and overspread the whole, like a verdant canopy, forming one 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 the great stream have been met and passed, and with these new scenes present themselves to the view. The forest at this place, as if in doleful mourning at the sight of the havock made on its margin by the impetuous and regardless waters, has thrown over her a ragged veil, produced by the long dangling masses that spread from branch to branch over the cypress trees. The dejected Indian's camp lies in your sight. He casts a melancholy glance over the scene, and remembers that he is no longer the peaceful and sole possessor of the land. Islands, one after another, come in sight, and at every winding of the stream you see boats propelled by steam ascending the river, and others, without such aid, silently gliding with the current.

Much might the traveller find to occupy his mind, and lead him into speculations regarding the past, the present, and the future, were he not attracted by the clear mellow notes, that issue from the woods, and gratified by the sight of the brilliant Oriole now before you. In solitudes like these, the traveller might feel pleased with any sound, even the howl of the wolf, or the still more dismal bellow of the alligator. Then how delightful must it be to hear the melody resulting from thousands of musical voices that come from some neighbouring tree, and which insensibly leads the mind, with whatever it may previously have been occupied, first to the contemplation of 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 the still more enchanting Ohio, and yet never for a day have we been without the company of the Oriole. Here, amongst the pendulous branches of the lofty Tulip-trees, it moves gracefully up and down, seeking in the expanding leaves and opening blossoms the caterpillar and the green beetle, which generally contribute to its food. Well, reader, it was one of these pendulous twigs which I took when I made the drawing before you. But instead of having cut 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, or perhaps from a more distant region, and enters Louisiana as soon as spring commences there. It approaches the planter's house, and searches amongst the 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 of the moss, which in that State is known by the name of Spanish Beard, and whenever he finds one fit for his purpose, ascends to the favourite spot where the nest is to be, uttering all the while a continued chirrup, which seems to imply that he knows no fear, but on the contrary fancies himself the acknowledged king of the woods. This sort of chirruping becomes louder, and is emitted in an angry tone, whenever an enemy approaches, or the bird is accidentally surprised, the sight of a cat or a dog being always likely to produce it. No sooner does he reach the branches, than with bill and claws, aided by an astonishing sagacity, he fastens one end of the moss to a twig, with as much art as a sailor might do, and takes up the other end, which he secures also, but to another twig a few inches off, leaving the thread floating in the air like a swing, the curve of which is perhaps seven or eight inches from the twigs. The female comes to his assistance with another filament of moss, or perhaps some cotton thread, or other fibrous substance, inspects the work which her mate has done, and immediately commences her operations, placing each thread in a contrary direction to those arranged by her lordly mate, and making the whole cross and recross, so as to form an irregular network. Their love increases daily as they see the graceful fabric approaching perfection, until their conjugal affection and faith become as complete as in any species of birds with which I am acquainted.

The nest has now been woven from the bottom to the top, and so secured that no tempest can carry it off without breaking the branch to which it is suspended. Remark what follows. This nest contains no warming substance, such as wool, cotton, or cloth, but is almost entirely composed of the Spanish moss, interwoven in such a manner that the air can easily pass through it. The parents no doubt are aware of the intense heat which will exist ere long in this part of the world, and moreover take especial care to 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 formed it of the warmest and softest materials, and have placed it in a position which would have left it exposed to the sun's rays, the changes in the weather during the early period of incubation being sometimes so great there, that the bird looks on these precautions as necessary to ensure the life of its brood against intense cold, should it come, while it knows that the heat in these northern latitudes will not be so great as to incommode them. I have observed these sensible differences in the formation and position of the nests of the Baltimore Oriole, a great many times, as no doubt have other persons. The female lays from four to six eggs, and in Louisiana frequently rears two broods in a season. The period of incubation is fourteen days. The eggs are about an inch in length, rather broadly ovate, pale brown, dotted, spotted, and tortuously lined with dark brown.

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

A day or two before the young are quite able to leave the nest, they often 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, they resort to these fruits, and are equally fond of sweet cherries, strawberries, and others. During spring, their principal food is insects, which they seldom 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 brood out early in May, and of the second in July. As soon as they are fully able to take care of themselves, they generally part from each other, and leave the country, as their parents had come, that is, singly.

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

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

The plumage of the male bird is not mature until the third spring, and I have therefore in my drawing represented the males of the first, second, and third years. The female will form the subject of another plate. The male of the first year was taken for a female by my engraver, during my absence, and marked as such, although some of the plates were corrected the moment I saw the mistake.

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

Icterus Baltimore, Ch. Bonaparte, Synopsis of Birds of the United States, p. 51.

Oriolus Baltimore, Linn. Syst. Nat p. 162.—Gmel. Syst. vol. i. p. 389.—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 180.

Baltimore Oriole, Oriolus Baltimore, Wilson, Amer. Ornith. vol. i. p. 23. PI. i. fig. 3. Male; and vol. vi. p. 83. Pl. 53, fig. 4. Female.

Baltimore Bird, Lath. Synops. vol, ii. p. 432.


Adult Male, three years old, in spring. Plate XII. Fig. 1.

Bill conical, slender, longish, compressed, a little curved, very acute, with inflected acute margins; upper mandible obtuse above, lower broadly obtuse beneath. Nostrils oval, covered by a membrane, basal. Head and neck of ordinary size. Body rather slender. Feet of ordinary length; tarsus a little longer than the middle toe; inner toe little shorter than the outer; claws arched, compressed, acute, that of the hind toe twice the size of the others.

Plumage blended, glossy. Wings longish, somewhat rounded, the first quill being almost as long as the second and third, which are the longest. Tail longish, rounded, and slightly forked, the feathers rather narrow, and acuminate.

Bill and feet light blue. Iris orange. Head, throat, back part of the neck, fore part of the back, quills and larger secondaries, black; as are the two middle tail-feathers, and the base of all the rest. The whole under parts, the lesser wing-coverts, and the posterior part of the back, bright orange, deeply tinged with vermilion on the breast and neck. The tips of the two middle tail-feathers, and the terminal ends of the others, of a duller orange. Quills, excepting the first, margined with white.

Length 7¾ inches, extent of wings 12; bill 5/6 along the ridge, 11/12 along the gap; tarsus ¼, toe 1.

Male, two years old, in spring. Plate XII. Fig. 2.

The distribution of the colours is the same as in the adult male, but the yellow is less vivid, the upper mandible is brownish-black above, and the iris is light-brown.


Young Male, one year old, in spring. Plate XII. Fig. 1.

The bill is dark brown above, pale blue beneath. Iris brown. Feet light blue. The general colour is dull brownish-yellow, tinged with olive on the head and back. The wings are blackish-brown, the quills and large coverts margined and tipped with white. The lesser coverts are olivaceous, the tail destitute of black, and the under parts paler than in the adult, without any approach to the vivid orange tints displayed on it.

Length 7½ inches.




The Tulip-Tree.

Liriodendron tulipifera, Willd. Sp. Plant, vol. ii. p. 1254. Pursh. Flora Americ. p. 332. Mich.. Abr. Forest, de l'Amer. Sept. t. iii. p. 202, Pl. v.—Polyandria Polygynia, Linn., Magnoliæ, Juss.


This tree is one of the most beautiful of those indigenous to the United States, and attains a height of seventy, eighty, or even a hundred feet. The flowers are yellow and bright red, mixed with green, and upwards of three inches in diameter. The leaves are ovate at the base, truncatobilobate at the end, with one or two lobes on each side, all the lobes acuminate. It is generally distributed, but prefers rich soils. Its bark is smooth on the branches, cracked and fissured on the stems. The wood is yellow, hard, but easily wrought, and is employed for numerous purposes, particularly in the construction of houses, and for charcoal. The Indians often form their canoes of it, for which purpose it is well adapted, the trunk being of great length and diameter, and the wood light. In different parts of the United States, it receives the names of Poplar, White Wood, and Cane Wood.