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Orioles and Rosebreasts, In Detail

Friday, May 8, 2020

This frigid spring weather really smokes out the birds. I've been very thankful that I overbought on peanuts and seed a few months back. I remember thinking, "Now how am I going to use 50 pounds of  peanut halves?" Well.

But when orioles come in, I have to get creative. Turns out a grapefruit half will serve just as well as a navel orange or Clementine.

This is an interesting plumage. It's an adult female Baltimore oriole, and she's fairly old, as evidenced by the increasing black coming in on her face and back. Some might think this is a young male, but the secret to sexing Baltimore orioles is in the tail. No matter how much black an old female Baltimore has on her head and back; no matter how bright her orange breast, she will always show an olive-brown, not black tail. So don't be fooled by male-like coloration. If the tail is olive-brown and dull orange, it's a female.

Male Baltimores have black deck feathers on their tail. The deck feathers are the two that sit atop all the rest, forming the center stripe of the tail.

I got this smart fellow to try Zick Dough by loading an exhausted Clementine half with it. He took a shine to it right away.

When a bird does something novel, other birds watch it. This female rose-breasted grosbeak wondered about the Clementine the young male oriole was feeding from.

I've had good luck with peanuts and rose-breasts. Everybody seems to like peanuts. Though this is the only rose-breast this year who's gone for them.

He liked them so much he got into some good spats with the resident redbellies over access. Red is a battle flag for birds. He's intimidating her with that fancy shirtfront.

She is, however, better armed in the poking department, having a vicious stabber rather than a pincer.  

Rebelly: I WIN.
Rosebreast: I wait.

They love my Bird Spa, with its bubbling water. Rose-breasts are avid bathers. Seeing one on it always stops my heart, in a good way. 

This little female grosbeak was watching the oriole eating fruit. So. Is that good to eat? Should I bump you off and try it?

Look at the oriole's response! Ha ha!! He is evil!

His evil eye sufficed to drive the grosbeak away. Look at her beautiful yellow wingpits! If this were a young male, they'd be pink. And carmine-rose on an older male.

Here's a young male rosebreast, taking off from our sycamore,  from early autumn. Isn't that underwing gorgeous? So that's how you sex a bird in all-brown plumage. In rosebreasts, yellow= girl, pink= boy!

 I raised a baby grosbeak one summer years ago--Jeffy. He was one of my favorite clients EVER. So gentle and sweet and easy to be with. When I released him, he hung around eating from little cups of mixed vegetables and mealworms around my yard. At the time he left, he still had yellow wing linings. Though there was no way to be sure, I had a strong feeling he was a male. 
I didn't see Jeffy for several weeks. Then one September day, he came out of nowhere and circled over me, calling, as I worked in the garden. I was SO excited to see him. And I saw his pink wingpits, and knew I'd been right about his sex all along. That was such a great moment, one of the gifts of sticking with rehab and being there for the magic moment when a bird returns to say hi and show me his wingpits. This is my watercolor of that moment (as described in The Bluebird Effect). 

The older a male rosebreast gets, the more immaculate his coloration. Young males will show an admixture of brown in their black parts, especially on wings and head, and lots of speckling on the breast and flanks. Look at this amazing male, probably in his second spring (though as always I'm happy to be corrected!He's got fully black feathers in his wings, so maybe he's in his third spring?)  Wing linings are pale pink, and he has a very small pink cravat. Lots of streaking on the underparts, as well, and brown mottling on head and back. Taken May 2, 2016 here. Click on the photo to embiggen it and see the details I'm talking about.

This is interesting. I've been digging around trying to find out how long it takes a male rose-breast to attain full adult plumage. Found this in Birds of North America (now known as Birds of the World!): 

"Some males may not acquire complete Definitive Alternate (what we plebes know as breeding) plumage until their third year or later. Smith () cites a single male that was banded as a yearling in 1961 and did not acquire a completely bright-pink bib until 1965. "

Whoa! Like a bald eagle, taking four years to get that cravat? WHO KNEW? Probably not the case for all individuals, but still. Who knew?

This is the best shot I've ever gotten showing molt in a second spring male rose-breasted grosbeak. Look at the retained juvenile plumage in wings and tail! It shows as dull brown. He's got the remnants of the broad white crown stripes he wore as a juvenile.  All his ebony finery is still on its way in. And the deck feathers on his tail are newly grown, and black. Taken May 3, 2016, in Whipple, OH.

 This one has just a few black specks on his breast. But look at the extent of the carmine on this boy! Runs all the way down his midline, goes almost from shoulder to shoulder across his breast. From what I've observed, I suspect the rose cravat gets more extensive as he ages, as well. I'm fascinated by the progression of molt in birds, especially as it is used to age them. 

It has been such a delight having grosbeaks around this spring. They are one of the great gifts of early May. I know they're helping keep me content on the gray rainy cold days when I'm not grubbing in the garden or ranging through the forest. 

Another reminder, my last. Tomorrow, May 9, I will be participating in the Virtual World Series of Birding, with an all-star team of 22. Proceeds from our pledges will go to monarch butterfly research. The money is needed more than ever, with the recent slaying of two of Michoacan's most ardent monarch conservationists by drug cartel fiends on the butterflies' mass wintering grounds. My esteemed friend Mark Garland has put together the team. I'm included for geographic diversity, since most of us are from the East Coast. I got 61 species on my place alone on my dry run May 7, so you can do the math if you wish to pledge. At 10 cents per bird, that would be $6.10. :) Who knows how many species we can rack up, with people like Louise Zemaitis and Michael O'Brien birding their yard in Cape May? Scott Weidensaul will be checking in, with highs in the 30's and blowing snow in northern New Hampshire. Seth Benz's forecast on the Maine coast isn't much balmier. Nowhere but Texas, where Angel and Mariel Abreu will clock in,  is the weather going to be salubrious, but we're all going out and seeing all the birds we can. I'm hoping for peeks of sun, but it won't even reach 50 degrees here tomorrow. 

 I'll be birding around my admittedly largeish "yard" and along my bluebird trail, as I feed hungry babies in the box and leave little crocks full of live mealworms on the box roofs. Just got back from my second run today. All are warm and well-fed. One more run before nightfall. 

 If so moved, you can pledge for monarch conservation here: 

Thank you so much!


Wonderful post---thanks for all the interesting details.
I've contributed to your fundraiser--thanks for your efforts.
Skunk farmer Kathy in San Diego

Love love love!

Fabulous post! Fabulous and so very timely! Saw my first Grosbeak today.. and lured 6 magnificent Orioles to my yard with two orange halves..Thanks to your previous post and its suggestion!❤ ❤ Magical sightings to say the least. Thank you for all the wonderful information!!

Thoroughly loved this post...we live in an Akron suburb but may put some orange halves out just in case. Our staple tends to be sunflower hearts (pricey I know) and peanuts. The migrants are missing Bill.

I’m curious. Will you share your recipe for Zick Dough? This is the first year we’ve attracted Baltimore Orioles to our yard in Sharon Center, OH. I can’t keep up with their orange and jelly consumption! We rigged up a bigger jelly contraption for them today with coat hangers and a quart jar lid. Just looking for alternatives.Thanks!

This comment has been removed by the author.

Sorry, just found the recipe in your earlier post! Pat from Sharon Center

To Commenter Pat - I also hope you read Julie's information in her post about grape jelly feeding - as in Don't Do It...please! Kim in PA

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