Discover more from This Week in Birding
Going grape: Orioles take to jelly, orange feeder
Insight into kestrels' mysterious decline.
Baltimore Orioles are one of those species that inspire awe and excitement with nearly every sighting. So much so that it was on my list of seven show-stopping Midwestern species last year. The funny thing is some people sort of laugh when orioles come up in conversation. “You mean like the baseball team?” Well, yeah, they’re a real species, except for the ill-fated years when they were renamed Northern Orioles, presumably by someone who hates the national pastime.
Until recently, actually luring an oriole to a feeder on our property had been an impossible task. I’d see gorgeous social media photos of orioles on specially made feeders, enjoying orange slices and a taste of grape jelly. It was enough to instill some birding FOMO (fear of missing out), particularly when we’d hear the joyous orioles singing throughout our neighborhood. Why can’t we have orioles in our yard, too?
We bought an oriole feeder at Menard’s a couple years ago and placed it in a secluded spot near our patio sometime in the warmer months. Then we put up a couple orange slices. And nothing happened, other than attracting a parade of ants to the oranges.
This year inspired a new idea, why not place the feeder somewhere more prominent? And this time, why not try the grape jelly? So the feeder went up on a maple in our parkway, near our other feeders. We filled the little glass cup with Concord Grape jelly and impaled two halves of a navel orange. Then we waited.
Nothing happened for the first week or so. We’d look out at the empty feeder hopefully. Orioles were back for the season—we heard several in the treetops—so it was easy to imagine that one day we’d see one enjoying some fruity treats. Finally, on one of these glances, an oriole was sitting on the circular metal portion of the feeder and seemed intrigued. It dipped its bill into the jelly before flying off hastily.
During the next few weeks, the oriole (an adult male) and a likely immature male of pale orange hues made regular visits to the feeder. They went through two 12-ounce jars of jelly. They’d poke at the oranges, too, when the jelly was empty. The new feeder placement worked out beautifully. And the oranges did attract some ants, though that didn’t seem to be a deterrent for the birds. There really wasn’t any downside to this feeder—squirrels didn’t seem interested for the most part, and pesky species like House Sparrows simply stayed away.
The biggest challenge now is keeping the jelly cup full for the orioles. Even when we’re out of oranges, they’ll still come for the Smuckers. These are things we could not have anticipated even two months ago.
Decline of a pint-sized predator
The American Kestrel, our smallest falcon, is so common in certain areas that it can be hard to believe that it’s declining. The reality is that the kestrel population has declined by 50 percent since 1970. The thought had been it was due to the loss of nesting cavities in the form of dead trees. Some rural and suburban areas are entirely devoid of the old trees the falcons rely on.
However, a story in the New York Times presents a more complicated view of the kestrel’s decline.
From the Times story:
In a newly published special issue on kestrels in The Journal of Raptor Research, Dr. Smallwood and David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University in Montreal, list seven possible factors for kestrel declines that they argue merit more research, in no particular order.
Could a surge in the population of Cooper’s hawks be limiting kestrel habitat? What’s happening to kestrels’ winter habitat? In the spring, do agricultural fields lure kestrels to nest, only to let them down as the land changes over the season with planting or harvesting? Could kestrel declines be related to insect declines? Are rodenticides, a danger to all birds of prey who eat poisoned mice and rats, of special concern for kestrels? What are the effects of neonicotinoids, a particularly potent insecticide? What about the consequences of climate change?
Many kestrel experts think it’s a combination of causes.
Smallwood points to a decline in grasshoppers as perhaps the biggest factors. Kestrels—and young kestrels in particular—rely on grasshoppers as a big part of their diet. First-year birds find it easier to catch grasshoppers versus small mammals, songbirds, and reptiles.
Certainly, we do need to keep more old trees and fencerows around regardless. These are havens for biodiversity that provide other benefits like serving as wind breaks and reducing erosion.
But this is yet another example of how humanity is impacting an incredible species—on so many fronts—right before our eyes.
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