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Oriole Migration Update: April 20, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Here They Come!
The migration of Baltimore and Bullocks Orioles is underway! The first few sightings are beginning to trickle in, so keep your eyes on the skies, tune your ears and let us know when YOUR orioles return from the Neotropics!

Hooray for W.Allan Kimberley, who was visiting Costa Rica and sent this newsflash on April 19:

"G'day. First oriole sightings of the year were in Costa Rica--like TONS of them, as they say. Didn't see Bullocks in the areas I was in, but many Baltimore and Orchard Orioles." (kimberla@cadvision.com)

Challenge Question #9:
"How many orioles would weigh a ton?" (Hint: Baltimore Orioles weigh 30-40 grams.)

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Latest Migration News
Once orioles leave their wintering grounds south of the border, it doesn't take long for them to reach our backyards.

On April 14, Harlen and Altus Aschen in Port Lavaca Texas (28.53N, -96.68W) let us know whether the orioles arrived as they usually do like clockwork each year--on April 15, income tax day:

"We came home after school today and stopped by Tilley Park in Port Lavaca to check out the mulberry trees. We counted two male and three female Orchard Orioles. Only a few of the mulberries are ripe, but there the orioles were ... almost the fifteenth!" (heaa@tisd.net)

Sightings show that the long-awaited Baltimore orioles are arriving along the Gulf Coast, and Bullocks are landing in California. A handful are even arriving in the north already!

"I saw my first Baltimore Oriole in Toronto in the Toronto Necropolis at the end of Winchester Street, east of Parliament Street on Friday April 14th." T. Dobko (dobko@home.com)

This exciting news means keep your heads up and eyes open--especially in the morning--because. . .

Flight By Night
Our first glimpse of orioles and other songbirds from the tropics is often in the morning, after the birds land following a long night of flight. In fact, most songbirds migrate at night. Have you ever wondered why?

Challenge Question #10:
"Name some reasons why songbirds would migrate by night rather than day."

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Put Out the Welcome Mat
Migrating takes a LOT of energy! When birds flap their wings for many hours during the night, they burn enormous numbers of calories. As a result, they need food as soon as they come down in the morning. Orioles are not particular about where they come down after a long night's flight. They recognize the color orange from afar, probably because both their own plumage and many of their favorite foods are orange. If an oriole is passing over and spies the bright orange color of an oriole feeder, it usually drops down to investigate, often even in a big city or schoolyard! Put out your oriole feeders and orange halves and see for yourself. Just cut an orange in half, set the halves on a deck railing or flat feeder, or tie them on a tree branch. Get set to welcome your orioles home!

For everything you need to know--ways to attract orioles as well as lists of nest building materials, oriole treats, and recipes for your feeder--see:

You'll also want to print:

What's the Weather? Dr. Aborn's Weather Report
David's prediction last week that a cold front moving across the country that would likely force migrants to land came true in a big way! There were few Baltimore oriole sightings yet, but lots of Orchard Orioles and other early migrants. David says, "The birds I saw this week will be heading that way soon, so look for them!"

David also tells us:"You folks up north may have some pretty good birding Thursday and Friday. Conditions should be good (for birders, not for migrants!) along the Gulf coast as well. In the eastern and southeastern US, the front should pass by Friday and Saturday, making the weekend and early next week a good time to look for migrants."

See David's full weather report at:

*Weather Forecast for the Birds

How Do Birds Forecast the Weather?
When they're about to leave on migration, birds don't have access to the WWW or weather hotline. They can never be completely certain what the weather is like where they're going. But birds CAN judge what the weather is like right where they are. They know if it's a good day to fly. You must be wondering:

Challenge Question #11:
"How do birds sense weather conditions, and know whether good or bad migration weather might be coming?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Air pressure plays an important role not only in when birds fly, but how high. Explore ideas about birds and air pressure at:

Nasty for Nests: Try This to Prove It!
To help you choose good nesting materials to set out for birds, try this experiment first. Collect a clump of dryer lint. Get it thoroughly wet and let it dry. Does the lint crumble or hold together? Does it still feel soft?

The lesson is this: NEVER set out dryer lint for birds! It feels soft and wonderful to us and to birds, but doesn't hold up after a rain. Also, make sure you don't set out ANY strings or yarns longer than 6 inches. Parents or babies can get tangled or even strangled in long strings.

How High Do They Fly? Discussion of Challenge Question #5
Last time David Aborn asked you: "How high do you think a bird flies when it migrates?"

David said, "It depends. Songbirds fly at about 2,000 feet over land, but fly at 4,000-5,000 feet over water. Shorebirds fly at about 4,000 feet, regardless of whether they are over land or water. Ducks fly at about 3,000 feet over land, but only 1,000 feet over water. In Europe and Asia, some cranes and geese have to fly over the Himalaya Mountains and have been reported by airplanes flying at 20,000-30,000 feet!"

All Around the Mulberry Bush: Response to Challenge Question #6
"Why do Texans watch springtime changes in mulberry bushes to help them predict when orioles will arrive?" You'll find the answer in this sighting, reported by Harlen and Altus Aschen in Texas:

"On April 2, Petra Hockey, renowned birder of the area, sent an oriole report from Port O'Connor (28.5289N, -96.6789W), about 15 miles east of Port Lavaca. Petra and another birder observed 40+ Orchard Orioles come "falling in," heading straight for two mulberry trees in an oak motte. A little later they saw more Orchard Orioles with a total of about 80 for the day. Then today, Monday, 10 April, Petra reported a Northern Oriole flying across the street as she was going home. The mulberry trees with ripening fruit are a key in these early sightings every year along the Texas coast and early to mid April is the time mulberries ripen."

Those hungry new arrivals love fueling up on the ripening mulberries!

Oriole Look-a-Likes! Response to Challenge Question #7
Our question was about a Journey North observer who reported an oriole sighting in Minnesota in March. The bird was sighted at a feeder with sunflower seeds. We asked: "What kind of bird do you think the observer saw? How do you know it's not an oriole?" While we can't be sure what bird species was seen, you DID send some great ideas:

"I think the observer saw an evening grosbeak. These birds have some off the orange, black, and white color patterns as the northern oriole. I know this is not an oriole because orioles don't migrate back in March and orioles don't eat sunflower seeds." (dlindstrom@pinenet.com)

Minnesotan Elizabeth Howard thinks the observer saw a goldfinch. She said:
"Orioles winter in the tropics and first appear in early May in Minnesota. Orioles don't come to sunflower feeders because they are nectar and insect eaters. Many people confuse orioles and goldfinches because both are brightly colored birds. Goldfinches are bright yellow and orioles are bright orange (during the breeding season, that is). Sometimes the colors shown in bird books can make this confusing. Another source of confusion is that goldfinches are brown during the winter, but turn bright yellow as spring advances. Therefore, people often think they're seeing a different bird, perhaps a spring migrant." (ehoward@journeynorth.org)

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words: Discussion of Challenge Question #8

Photo courtesy Provincial Museum of Alberta

We asked you to look at this photo and answer: "How does an oriole use its beak? Name as many ways as you can. How does the beak shape help with the uses you named?"

Bird expert Laura Erickson lists some of the ways orioles use their beaks:
  • feeding
  • preening
  • attacking enemies when in big trouble
  • gathering nesting materials
  • building a nest

Laura explains, "Orioles have a typical blackbird beak. This beak does a lot of jobs well, but isn't specialized for one purpose. It's long enough and sharp enough to stick into large fruits or to break off pieces of peel, catch slow moving insects like caterpillars, and pick berries. It's straight enough to do an excellent job of cleaning and straightening feathers. If a predator catches an oriole and doesn't kill it instantly, an oriole beak is strong and sharp enough to pack a wallop. It's also strong enough for pulling grasses and other tough fibers, and long and pointed enough to make an excellent weaving tool."

What about the other observation questions we asked about this photo? Laura tells what a keen observer could learn:

Q. Is this a male or a female?
A. Male. Plumage color and intensity tell us this.

Q. How old do you think it is? Why?
A. He's at least one year old, because he's in adult plumage. But we can't tell by looking exactly how old he is.

Q. How much do you think it weighs?
A. Orioles weigh 30 to 40 grams, between 1 and 1.5 ounces. It would take about three orioles to balance a quarter-pound hamburger patty!

Q. Do you think orioles have color vision? Support your guess.

A. Orioles do have color vision. Scientists can tell this by looking at the retina of their eye-it has many cone cells. But even a non-scientist can look at an oriole's colorful plumage and tell that it must be able to see colors-how else could a male oriole use those colors to display to other males and attract females?

Q. What are some reasons why this oriole might be in a person's hand?
A. Sometimes people pick up birds that crash into windows, get hit by cars, or attacked by cats. This oriole looks pretty healthy and unhurt. The photographer, Chandler Robbins, is a scientist for the Patuxent Wildlife Research Station, where birds are often banded for study. So this particular oriole was probably caught in a mist net, banded by a researcher, and is being photographed before being released. Notice the way the bird's legs are held firmly but gently; it takes experience for banders to hold birds this way without hurting them.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:
Please answer ONLY ONE question in EACH e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to: jn-challenge-oriole@learner.org
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #9 (or #10 or #11).
3. In the body of your message, give your answer to the question above.

The Next Oriole Migration Update Will Be Posted on May 4, 2000

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