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Oriole Nesting Behavior

Dear Bird Folks,

Every year we have a pair of Baltimore Orioles nesting in our yard. What surprises us is that out of all the trees in our yard, the tree they choose is one that hangs over a busy road. Why would the orioles nest over a busy road instead of a quiet part of our backyard? If it were me, I would avoid building a nest over so much traffic.

-Margaret, Cranston, RI


Good thinking Margaret,

You are very wise to “avoid building a nest over so much traffic.” Too many of your friends would see you up there and would wonder what you were doing climbing through tree branches with bits of straw in your mouth. You don’t need to give them any more reasons to talk about you.

The location of birds’ nests are as varied as the birds themselves. Nests can be found in tree tops, underground, hidden in swamps, on exposed beaches or deep inside the trunk of a tree. Yet, no matter how odd the location, they all fulfill the nesting requirements for that species, even if the locations look scary to us humans. Most people wouldn’t be thrilled at the thought of living inside a tree, with no windows or closet space, but the woodpeckers don’t mind. And forget about living in a swamp. I don’t care how much I wanted to breed, there is no way I would build a nest in a swamp. One sight of a snake and my eggs would have to hatch themselves. Luckily for the birds they don’t have the same phobic concerns that we have. What looks like a crazy location to us is just fine for the birds. I used to wonder about this nest-over-the-street thing too Margaret. When I was younger I was told that the orioles liked to build nests over the street because they were attracted to the heat that reflected off the blacktop. Even as a kid I knew that was stupid. Who wants extra heat in the summertime? Another theory was that by nesting over a busy road the birds have a good chance of adding a fresh “decoration” to any BMW convertibles that pass under them. I’m kind of liking that theory.

The truth is it’s not the road that attracts the orioles, it’s the overhang. In addition to roads, their nests can be found hanging over lakes, rivers or open fields. It is generally thought that birds are better protected from predators when they build their nests on the thin outer branches of a tree. A fat, old, egg-stealing raccoon would certainly have a much more difficult time getting to a nest that was placed out on thin branches over a river, than it would if the nest was closer to the tree trunk.

More interesting than the location is the oriole’s nest itself. The oriole’s nest isn’t jammed into the fork of a tree; it’s a deep pouch that hangs freely from the rim, like a basketball net. The nest is made out of plant fibers, animal hair, string, and in parts of Cranston, vinyl siding. The female builds the entire nest alone, without the use of tools, blueprints, or having to meet with the local planning board. The male sometimes brings material, but most often stands around and (you’ll love this ladies) “inspects the work.” You just know the whole time she is working hard she has to listen to him mumbling, “I think you’re doing it wrong. I don’t like the looks of that last string. That will never hold up. And did you take my new orange suit to the cleaners?”

The females, without any help from their nagging mates, build amazingly durable nests. Most nests are still in good shape the following year. The only reason why there aren’t dozens of old nests hanging from the trees is because oftentimes the material from the old nest is used to make a new one. The birds don’t reuse an old nest, but they certainly will recycle one. Once again the birds are smarter than we are.

In addition to being good nest builders, orioles are excellent parents. Unlike many songbirds that are victimized by the parasitic cowbirds, the orioles will have none of it. If a cowbird lays an egg in an oriole’s nest, the birds simply give the alien egg the heave-ho over the side or they eat it, depending on whether they are on low cholesterol diets or not.

Don’t worry about your birds nesting over the busy road Margaret. Mrs. Oriole knows what she is doing. I doubt the traffic noise bothers her like it would bother us. Actually, she probably likes it. Anything is better than listening to that nagging husband of hers.