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Orioles Disappear But Return After Nesting

Dear Bird Folks,

My daughter in North Andover (MA) is concerned about the orioles that were around earlier, but have disappeared. I’ve had the same issue in my yard as well. Any ideas?

– Bill, Hyannis, MA


I was so close, Bill,

It’s the end of the month and I had high hopes that this would be the first June in the past 87 years when I didn’t have to write about The Case of the Mysterious Disappearing Birds. I was almost there, just a few days from July, and then I received your note and it all changed. Okay, fine, I’ll write about June’s lack of birds for the 88th time. But just promise me that you’ll cut out this column, set it on your desk and have it ready to read next year, so I can finally take a break from this annual topic. (FYI: Anyone who is new to this column should know that Bill regularly sends in questions and observations, and expects to be teased a little. So, don’t send me any emails saying that I was mean or rude to Bill. He is a smart man and can take care of himself…just don’t ask him to remember what I wrote about last June, or the June before or the June before, or…)

Each May, our backyards are treated to the return of two birds from the tropics: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles (plus, a few lucky people also get Orchard Orioles). For a furious couple of weeks, our feeders are rocking with hungry birds that have just arrived for the summer or that are stopping here to refuel before continuing their way north. It is during this time period that we sell most of our hummingbird and oriole feeders. These feeders are mostly purchased by folks who have just seen the colorful birds at a friend’s feeder and now they want the same birds in their yard, too. I like these people a lot.

By the end of the month, the migrating birds will have moved on, while the local nesting birds will be focused on raising a family. Most of us attract orioles with orange halves, sugar water or grape jelly, or perhaps a combination of all three. These sweet foods give tired birds quick energy, but they aren’t great for helping baby birds grow. The adults will need to find more protein-packed foods in the form of caterpillars and other larval insects. In June, adult orioles spend their day scouring branches and leaves for wormy things. As a result, the adults have less time to visit our feeders. Don’t take it personally, that’s just the way it is. Eventually, though, if the adults can find enough caterpillars for their nestlings, the kids will grow up, learn to fly and will very likely join their parents at your feeder…if you haven’t given up by then and taken it down out of spite.

To some extent the same thing can be said for hummingbirds and other feeder birds as well. We all think that hummingbirds are nectar eaters, which they are, but about half of a hummer’s diet also consists of tiny insects. The female, with a nest of hungry chicks, is now even more focused on finding insects. As I’m writing this, I’m also staring out the window at a feeder filled with sunflower seeds. About fifty feet from the feeder is a nest box of young chickadees. The parents of these babies are working overtime to keep them all fed. With so many mouths (beaks) to feed, you might think the adults would be loading up on food from my feeder, but the only bird on my feeder right now is a red squirrel. The adult chickadees, along with the titmice, cardinals, etc., are off searching through the nearby foliage for those tiny, and somewhat creepy, inchworms. (FYI: The only birds not interested in worms right now are the goldfinches, because goldfinches are vegetarians. They have seen the light.)

There are over 1,400 different inchworm species in North America. Each fall, inchworm adults (aka, moths) lay millions of eggs on the branches and on the bark of trees. In the spring, the eggs hatch and become caterpillars, which then spend a few weeks chowing down on tree foliage. When they’ve had enough of their daily leaf diet, it will be time for them to move on. Where do they go? They go underground or under leaf litter, and eventually encase themselves in cocoons for the next cycle of their lives. How do they get from the top of a tree to the ground? That’s a good question, especially since they only move an inch at a time. Instead of crawling, which would take forever, the clever worms simply drop to the ground, via long silk threads, looking like soldiers in an Army training film. Take a drive along any tree-lined road right now and you’ll see what I mean. In addition to the road being filled with the usual bike riders, dog walkers and poorly parked landscaping trucks, you are also likely to find catbirds, cardinals, robins and other birds feasting in the middle of the road on the descending worms. BTW: Please be extra careful while you are driving this time of year. The birds are fixated on gathering food and seem to be oblivious to the oncoming traffic, just like the bike riders, dog walkers and landscapers.

Your feeders might seem quiet right now, Bill, but in a few weeks the baby birds will have fledged and the inchworms will be in their cocoons and out of sight. That means birds of all species (orioles, hummingbirds, chickadees, etc.) will be returning to our feeders in force, so don’t lose hope and keep your feeder fresh and ready for their return. And with that, I’m done and will never write about this topic ever, ever, ever again…until next June.