The hands of time seem to spin faster during spring than during any other time of year. So many things are happening right now that it is almost dizzying to watch. Every day I take time for at least a short walk about the property and could spend hours at my journal describing the myriad of new plants, animals, birds and bugs that I find. Right now, it’s the birds who have my eye with their colorful plumage and brilliant songs.
As we head out to the garden for our daily chores, I notice a flurry of activity around the old bluebird box in the yard. The birds flitting in and out of the entrance are not bluebirds, but rather a sweet little pair of Tufted Titmice. Apparently they took stealthy possession of the snug cavity after the bluebirds rejected it.
Even under close scrutiny, we were unaware that the titmice had made their nest there. In fact, it wasn’t until this very day that we saw activity around the box. Apparently the eggs have already hatched because the pair is very active, taking turns going in and out to feed the chicks.
The bluebirds, on the other hand, have relocated to a new box I set up especially for them. I had originally hung the box to lure the pair away from our wood stove chimney after the male found himself down the chimney pipe and inside our wood stove one early spring day. Luckily we were able to free him, but the bluebird box was not in an ideal place – tacked to a tree behind the house.
Apparently something frightened the female away just as she was building her nest. My best guess is that our resident flying squirrel, who spent most of the winter in the box and figured it was his, took over the box one afternoon and chased the bluebirds away. I have since reclaimed the box and attached it to a sturdy and very slippery PVC pipe in a more open part of the yard and the bluebirds are once again building their nest there.
Among the birds still arriving from their winter grounds are two that we often think of as summer birds – the lovely summer tanager and its colorful cousin, the indigo bunting.
Summer Tanagers (Piranga rubra) are sweet little song birds found primarily in the southern half of the United States. The males are the only all-red bird in North America and their plumage is especially bright during breeding season. The females are a bright yellowish-green that perfectly blends with the color of new spring leaves. In the Ozarks, summer tanagers prefer open wooded areas and are sometimes called bee birds because of their penchant for hunting bees and wasps.
Indigo Buntings (Passerina cyanea) are a bit smaller than the tanagers, reaching only 5” in height. Female buntings are a plain, mousy-brown while the males are covered with electric blue feathers. Both male and female have thick, seed-cracking bills, but only the male has a two toned mandible, which is black on top and white below. These strikingly bright and beautiful birds have such unique and exotic songs that when they arrive on the scene they completely steal the show.
While the tanagers and buntings always catch our eye, today another bird is giving them some competition. A lovely Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) has been hanging out in the meadow, serenading us with its warbling song and noisy chatter. It is not a song we often hear, as these birds seem to prefer a more open habitat, especially where mature fruit-bearing trees are found in abundance.
Orchard orioles are the smallest of the North American species, which include the Baltimore, Hooded and Scott’s orioles. Adult orchard orioles have black heads, backs, tails and wings. The feathers on their belly and chest are a deep rusty-red or chestnut color. Some males are so dark that they appear all black to the naked eye. Females and immature males look very similar to one another, as both are primarily greenish-yellow, but the immature male can be told from the female by the black bib beneath its chin.
While orchard orioles are quite striking and have wonderful songs, they are interesting in other ways, as well. Orchard orioles prefer to eat flower nectar and build delicate, pendant-shaped nests, woven with soft grass and lined with feathers, fur or plant down. These nests are precariously suspended at the very furthest tips of small tree branches. It is doubtful that the orioles will nest here, for this isn’t their preferred habitat, but while they remain, we will enjoy their love songs as we bend to our work in the garden.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.