Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Orchard Oriole

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

THE ORCHARD ORIOLE.

Icterus spurius, Bonap.

PLATE XLII. Male in different states, Adult Female and Nest.


The plumage of many species of our birds undergoes at times very extraordinary changes. Some, such as the male Tanagers, which during the summer months exhibit the most vivid scarlet and velvety black, assume a dingy green before they leave the country, on their way southward. The Goldfinch nearly changes to the same colour, after having been seen in a gay apparel of yellow and black. The Rice Bird loses its lively brightness until the return of spring. Others take several years before they complete their plumage, so as to shew the true place which they hold amongst the other species, as is the case with the Ibis, the Flamingo, and many other Waders, as well as with several of our land birds, among which, kind reader, the species now under your consideration is probably that in which these gradual improvements are most observable by such persons as reside in the country inhabited by them.

The plumage of the young birds of this species, when they leave the nest, resembles that of the female parent, although rather less decided in point of colouring, and both males and females retain this colour until the approach of the following spring, when the former exhibit a portion of black on the chin, the females never altering. In birds kept in cages, this portion of black remains without farther augmentation for two years; but in those which are at liberty, a curious mixture of dull orange or deep chestnut peeps out through a considerable increase of black-coloured feathers over the body and wings, intermixed with the yellowish-green hue which the bird had when it left the nest. The third spring brings him nearer towards perfection, as at that time the deep chestnut colour has taken possession of the lower parts, the black has deepened on the upper parts, and over the whole head, as well as on the wings and tail-feathers. Yet the garb with which it is ultimately to be covered requires another return of spring before it is completed, after which it remains as exhibited in the adult male, represented in the plate.

These extraordinary changes are quite sufficient of themselves to lead naturalists abroad into error, as they give rise to singular arguments even with some persons in America, who maintain that the differences of colour are indicative of different species. But, since the habits of these birds under all these singular changes of plumage are ascertained to be precisely the same, the argument no longer holds good. I shall now endeavour to describe these habits with all the accuracy supplied by long observation.

The migration of the Orchard Oriole from south to north is performed by day, and singly, as is that of its relative the Baltimore Oriole, the males appearing a week or ten days sooner than the females. Their flight is lower than that of the Baltimore, and considerably shorter in its continuance, the Orchard Oriole alighting more frequently on the tops of the trees, to rest or to feed. They exhibit a greater repetition of motions of the wings, although sliding through the air for a few yards only at a time, and whilst about to alight, as well as afterwards, perform strong and well marked jettings of the tail. This the Baltimore seldom does. No sooner have they reached the portion of the country in which they intend to remain during the time of raising their young, than these birds exhibit all the liveliness and vivacity belonging to their nature. The male is seen rising in the air for ten or twenty yards in an indirect manner, jerking his tail and body, flapping his wings, and singing with remarkable impetuosity, as if under the influence of haste, and anxious to return to the tree from which he has departed. He accordingly descends with the same motions of the body and tail, repeating his pleasant song as he alights. These gambols and carollings are performed frequently during the day, the intervals being employed in ascending or descending along the branches and twigs of different trees, in search of insects or larvæ. In doing this, they rise on their legs, seldom without jetting the tail, stretch their neck, seize the prey, and emit a single note, which is sweet and mellow, although in power much inferior to that of the Baltimore. At other times, it is seen bending its body downwards, in a curved posture, with the head greatly inclined upwards, to peep at the under parts of the leaves, so as not to suffer any grub to escape its vigilance. It now alights on the ground, where it has spied a crawling insect, and again flies towards the blossoms, in which many are lurking, and devours hundreds of them each day, thus contributing to secure to the farmer the hopes which he has of the productiveness of his orchard.

The arrival of the females is marked with all due regard, and the males immediately use every effort in their power to procure from them a return of attention. Their singings and tricks are performed with redoubled ardour, until they are paired, when nidification is attended to with the utmost activity. They resort to the meadows, or search along the fences for the finest, longest, and toughest grasses they can find, and having previously fixed on a spot either on an Apple Tree, or amidst the drooping branches of the Weeping Willow, they begin by attaching the grass firmly and neatly to the twigs more immediately around the chosen place. The filaments are twisted, passed over and under, and interwoven in such a manner as almost to defy the eye of man to follow their windings. All this is done by the bill of the bird, in the manner used by the Baltimore Oriole. The nest is of a hemispherical form, and is supported by the margin only. It seldom exceeds three or four inches in depth, is open almost to the full extent of its largest diameter at the top or entrance, and finished on all sides, as well as within, with the long slender grasses already mentioned. Some of these go round the nest several times, as if coarsely woven together. This is the manner in which the nest is constructed in Louisiana; in the Middle Districts it is usually lined with soft and warm materials. The female lays from four to six eggs of a bluish-white tint, sprinkled with dark brown, and raises only a single brood in the season. The young follow the parents for several weeks, and many birds congregate towards autumn, but the males soon separate from the females, and set out by themselves as they arrived in spring.

The sociality of the Orchard Oriole is quite remarkable, and in this respect that bird differs widely from the Baltimore, which will not suffer any other bird of its species to build a nest, or to remain within a considerable distance from the spot which it has selected for its own; whereas many nests of the species now before you may be observed in the same garden or orchard, and often within a few yards of the house. I have counted as many as nine of these nests on a few acres of ground, and the different pairs to which they belonged lived in great harmony.

Although the food of the Orchard Orioles consists principally of insects of various kinds, it is not composed exclusively of them. They are fond of different sorts of fruits and berries. Figs are also much relished by them, as well as mulberries and strawberries, but not to such a degree as to draw the attention of the gardener or husbandman towards their depredations.

This species makes its first appearance in Louisiana early in March, and remains until October, being seen for several weeks after the Baltimore Oriole has set out. In reaches the Middle Districts in the beginning of April. I have met with it as far as the province of Maine and the head waters of the Mississippi. It is fond of high ground and the neighbourhood of mountains during the breeding season, after which it removes to the meadows and prairies in considerable numbers. Whilst in these meadows, it feeds principally upon a small species of cricket, ground spiders and small grasshoppers. Their flesh is very good at that late season, and is much esteemed by the Creoles of Louisiana.

The French of that State give it the name of Pape de Prairie, while they designate the Baltimore Oriole by that of Pape de Bois, which arises no doubt from the marked preference which the former manifests to the plains in autumn, where a great number are shot or caught in trap cages. It is easily kept in cages, where it sings with all the liveliness which it shews in its wild state, and may be fed on rice and dry fruits, when fresh ones cannot be procured. I have known one of these birds, a beautiful male, kept for upwards of four years by a friend of mine at New Orleans. It had been raised from the nest, and having passed through the different changes of its plumage, had become perfect, was full of action, and sung delightfully.

The nest represented in the plate was drawn in Louisiana, and was entirely composed of grass. It may be looked upon as a sample of the usual form and construction. The branch of Honey Locust on which you see these birds belongs to a tree which sometimes grows to a great height, without much apparent choice of situation. It is more abundant to the west of the Alleghanies, and towards the Southern Districts, than in the Middle States. The wood is brittle and seldom used. The trunk and branches are frequently covered with innumerable long, sharp, and extremely hard spines, protruded in every direction, and in some instances placed so near to each other as to preclude the possibility of any person's climbing them. It bears a long pod, containing a sweet substance, not unlike that of the honey of bees, and which is eaten by children, when it becomes quite ripe. The spines are made use of by tobacconists for the purpose of fastening together the different twists of their rolls.

Icterus spurius, Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 51.

Oriolus spurius, Gmel, Syst. Nat. vol. i. p. 389—Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 180.

Bastard Baltimore, Lath. Synops. vol. ii. p. 433.

Orchard Oriole, Oriolus mutatus, Wils. Americ. Ornith. vol. i. p. 64. Pl. iv. fig. 1, 2, 3, 4.


Male in complete plumage. Plate XLII. Fig. 1, 2.

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 above, 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 soft, blended, glossy. Wings of ordinary length, the second and third primaries longest. Tail long, rounded, of twelve rounded feathers.

Bill black above with light blue margins, light blue beneath. Iris reddish-brown. Feet light blue. Head, neck, and upper back black; the rest of the body dusky orange-red, approaching to chestnut. Quills and larger coverts black, margined with yellow, the latter tipped with yellowish-white; tail black.

Length 6½ inches, extent of wings 9; bill along the ridge 712, along the gap 34; tarsus 1, middle toe 56.


Adult Female. Plate XLII. Fig. 5.

Bill, feet and iris, as in the male. Head and upper parts brownish-green. Wings and tail greenish-brown; wing-coverts tipped with white; throat white, sides of the neck and under parts generally greyish-yellow. The young of both sexes resemble the female.


Male, first autumn and spring. Plate XLII. Fig. 3.

A patch of black on the throat, continued upwards over the lore and forehead. Head and upper parts brownish-green; fore part of the back orange; a yellow band over the eye. Under parts light yellow. Wings and tail as in the female, but the coverts tipped with yellow.

Male in the second year. Plate XLII. Fig 4.

Irregularly spotted with black, yellow, and reddish orange, on the head, neck, and back; the other parts nearly as in the adult male.




The Honey Locust.

Gleditschia triacanthos, Willd. Sp. P. vol. iv. p. 1097. Pursh, Flor. Amer. vol. i. p. 221. Mich. Arbr. Forest. vol. iii. p. 164. Pl. 10.—Polygamia Diœcia, Linn. Leguminosæ, Juss.


This tree, when growing in situations most favourable to it, sometimes attains a height of sixty or eighty feet, and a diameter of three or four. The bark is detached in large plates, and the trunk is marked with several broad furrows. The flowers, which are small and of a greenish colour, are succeeded by long, flat, pendent, generally tortuous pods, of a brown colour. The wood is very hard, but porous and brittle. This species is distinguished by its numerous, generally tripartite spines, its linear-oblong leaflets, and its many-seeded, compressed legumes.