Dear Bird Folks,
A pair of Titmice have built a nest in our fourteen-year-old birdhouse. We were watching the adult titmice deliver larvae (tiny worms) to their babies today, when suddenly another bird joined in. It was a male Baltimore Oriole. The oriole landed on the entrance hole of the birdhouse, stuck its head inside and fed the baby titmice. Is this normal? -Nora, Chatham, MA
That’s funny, Nora,
It sounded like you said you saw an oriole land on the front of a birdhouse and feed worms to a nest of baby titmice. Ha! That’s a good one. Wait, you are serious. Stand by. I’ll be right there. When I first received Nora’s call I was skeptical; after all, she lives in Chatham. Who knows what crazy things people see in all that fog. But eventually I believed her story and decided it needed to be documented. I yelled to my son, Casey, to grab his camera because we had a “code red.” (I’m not really sure why I yelled code red. I guess I was trying to create some excitement. But, Casey has long stopped listening to my inane chatter and just got in the car, and did his best to put up with me.)
I’m always apprehensive when making a “house call.” I worry that I might end up at the wrong address. Even on liberal Cape Cod folks don’t take kindly to strangers walking around their yards with binoculars. I’m also concerned that a husband, who doesn’t know anything about the bird in question, might meet me at the door. Then I’ll have to explain why I’m standing there with a big camera…and asking for his wife. Fortunately, everything went fine this time. We found the right house and Nora was waiting for us. As soon as we arrived I understood why she had so many birds. Hey, if I were a bird I would live there, too. Her yard is beautiful, with a minimal amount of landscaping and lots of natural habitat. She pointed out the charming fourteen-year-old moss-covered birdhouse, which looked like something Hobbits might live in. Casey and I sat down and waited for this alleged titmouse-feeding oriole to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long.
Thirty-seconds into our vigil a streak of orange came screaming across the sky. The male oriole arrived chattering and singing, with his mouth completely stuffed with worms. (Not only was this bird confused about which babies to feed, but he never learned about not talking with his mouth full). The oriole then flew straight to the box, stuck his head in the hole and fed the baby titmice, just like Nora told me he did. As I stood there amazed by what I was seeing, I heard Casey’s camera start blasting away. This snapped me out of my trance and I reached for my camera as well. Nora’s yard now sounded like the paparazzi were covering an appearance by Lady Gaga. Only instead of a celebrity, we were photographing a male oriole feeding baby titmice in a box that looks like it’s owned by Bilbo Baggins. I like Lady Gaga, but this was much better.
The show continued when the real parents arrived with food. The oriole wasn’t about to let some other birds get near “his” babies and this psycho bird from Baltimore quickly dove at the bewildered titmouse couple. They were forced to sit back and wait for the crazy bird to be distracted before they could finally feed their own chicks. Don’t get me wrong; the oriole did not appear to be a hindrance to the nestlings. He seemed to be an excellent stepfather. Casey even took a photo of him carrying away one of the chick’s fecal sacks. (Now that’s a good father. Even I didn’t like doing that.) And these kids weren’t about to starve. With three adults stuffing them with food, I worried that the babies might become too big to fit through the hole in the birdhouse. I told Nora to stand by with the Jaws of Life.
The next thing Nora (and likely everyone else who is reading this) wanted to know is: Why is this oriole feeding some other bird’s babies? I wasn’t sure myself, so I sent the photographic evidence off to some birding eggheads, and also posted it on the definitive source of all information…Facebook. Amazingly, over 24,000 people saw my post of Nora’s oriole. One reader, Janice, offered a link to a paper written by Marilyn Muszalski Shy on this very subject. According to Ms. Shy, this strange behavior is known as “interspecific feeding.” (That’s nerd talk for one species feeding a totally different species.) While interspecific feeding is rare, it’s not unheard of. In her paper, Martha noted 140 documented such cases, which isn’t a lot considering that each year birds produce billions of “normal” nests. And this was totally abnormal, even for Chatham. Based on the info I read in Martha’s paper, I suspect the oriole has likely lost his own babies to predators and as a result is focusing his attention on the little titmice. Or perhaps while he is waiting for his own eggs to hatch, he prematurely jumped into feeding mode, heard the begging titmice and thought, why not try something new and different? Sometimes nature takes some strange turns…just ask Bruce Jenner.
Thanks for inviting us to see your nature oddity event, Nora. Things like this are what make bird watching so much fun. I’d love to know how this all shakes out. When the babies finally fly away, will they follow their real parents and gets the card on Father’s Day? If anything develops further, be sure to let me know. Just say it’s a “code red.” I’ll know what to do.