The cool, wet weather we’ve had this spring probably has attracted more early-season hummingbirds than usual to nectar feeders. Unseasonably cool, wet weather makes a dependable food supply invaluable to hummers.
Hummingbirds, though, are just one of many birds you might see at nectar feeders. A reader, for example, writes, “Last week we had a Baltimore oriole at the nectar feeder. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It tipped the feeder so the sugar water came out the holes.”
Another reader writes to say a small bird with a reddish head was sipping nectar from her feeder. (It was probably a male house finch.) They both ask if this is unusual.
No, it isn’t. The vividly colored orange, black and white Baltimore orioles eat fruit and nectar as well as a variety of insects and spiders. So do orchard orioles, which are a bit smaller and less conspicuous than their more gaudy kin. Male orchard orioles have rich chestnut rumps and underparts; the rest of the bird is black. Females of both species are much duller olive-yellow.
Both Baltimore and orchard orioles often seek out hummingbird feeders. However, the acrobatic balancing act that’s required to use most nectar feeders makes getting a free meal a frustrating experience.
To attract orioles to the neighborhood, consider buying a specially designed oriole feeder. Oriole feeders come equipped with over-sized feeding ports, large perches and a built-in ant guard. Use the same nectar recipe used for hummingbirds: Mix one part table sugar with four parts boiling water, cool, and refrigerate.
Don’t be surprised to see a parade of other visitors using nectar feeders. More than 50 species of birds in addition to hummingbirds are known to sip nectar. Among the nectar-drinkers to look for — woodpeckers, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, thrushes, warblers, tanagers and house finches.
If you’re not convinced that orioles deserve a special feeder, consider the rest of their diet. Among their favorite insect foods are hairy caterpillars, such as eastern tent caterpillars and gypsy moth caterpillars.
Most birds avoid hairy caterpillars because they’re irritating and difficult to swallow. Orioles and a few other birds such as tanagers and cuckoos don’t let a few nasty hairs discourage them. They hold hairy caterpillars in their bill and whack them against a branch until most of the hairs fall off. Then it’s down the hatch. Any natural enemy of these pests, which destroy thousands of acres of deciduous forests annually, deserves encouragement.
Orioles also can be attracted with a variety of other foods. A dish of mealworms is irresistible to most insectivorous birds. Nail sliced orange halves to platform feeders and dead branches; orioles love both the pulp and juice. And just a spoonful of generic grape jelly in a small dish on a tray feeder will attract orioles, catbirds and Carolina wrens.
We also can provide orioles with nesting material for their expertly woven, pouchlike nests. Fill a suet basket with strands of string, yarn, used dental floss, horse hair, or even long human hair. Make the pieces 6 to 10 inches long — long enough to weave, but not so long that they might entangle or strangle the birds. Before long, you’ll have a variety of nesting birds in your debt.
Female orioles take four to eight days to weave the nest, which they suspend from the fine outer branches of tall elms, sycamores and poplars. This delicate location makes it difficult for larger predators to reach the nest. Though the female builds a new nest each year, she often builds it in the same tree or even the same part of the tree as she did the year before.
To appreciate the complexity of building an oriole nest, try it yourself (with a child). Visit www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/oriole/BuildNest.html for directions.
When the nest is complete, the female lays a clutch of four or five eggs. She incubates the eggs for about two weeks, and then both parents share the duties of raising the brood. The young leave the nest when they’re about 2 weeks old. Unlike many local birds, orioles raise only a single brood each year.
By being a bit more generous with nectar feeders and nesting material, backyard birders can help make each brood count.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by e-mail via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.