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PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE The purse-like oriole nest is constructed and located near the end of a branch to protect it from predators. PRESS PHOTO BY BUD COLE The purse-like oriole nest is constructed and located near the end of a branch to protect it from predators.

Blackbirds include orioles, bobolinks, meadowlarks

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 by BUD COLE Special to The Press in Focus

Blackbirds are familiar birds observed throughout the Lehigh Valley. Blackbird flocks often tend to create great dark streaks as they fly across distant horizons. You may also have been close enough to hear the buzz of thousands upon thousands of wing pairs.

Members of the blackbird family tend to congregate, especially during spring and fall migrations. It is often difficult to tell one species from another when assembled in massive groups.

Most blackbirds are medium-size birds, with somewhat long beaks, and a tendency to make a great deal of noise. The sound of flapping wings and their raucous calls may cause you to halt what you are doing and focus on their movements. Migrating flocks are composed of red-wings, grackles, starlings and cowbirds.

Not all family members are predominately black. Orioles, bobolinks and meadowlarks belong to the blackbird family.

The Northern Oriole is also called the Baltimore Oriole because of its range farther north. This strikingly beautiful orange and black member of the blackbird family is listed in most field guides as the Northern Oriole.

The Baltimore Oriole, although common in the Lehigh Valley, often goes unnoticed. You may hear the song, but its tendency to inhabit the canopy or the upper treetops prevents many casual birders from pinpointing its exact location.

Orioles, as with other colorful species, winter in the rain forests of Central and South America, giving rise to the term describing the birds as neo-tropical. The male is marked with brilliant orange. The female uses its dusky olive greens and dull yellows to camouflage its whereabouts.

Oriole nests are remarkable structures. The female weaves a gray, hanging, gourd-shaped nest from soft fibrous materials. The male may occasionally supply string, thread, milkweed stalks, animal fur and other similar materials. The female does the major portion of gathering materials and construction work.

Nests are usually assembled on outer tips of sturdy branches. The nest resembles a small knit purse dangling from the branch.

Female orioles lay four to six white eggs scribbled with purple and brown pencil-like lines. They are quite safe from climbing enemies such as feral cats and other predators, since the dangling nest is on the end of lightweight branches.

Orioles eat insects. They're attracted to tube-shaped flowers such as rose-of-Sharon, hibiscus, and honeysuckle. Nectar from the flowers provides a favorite sweet. Through their nectar collecting, orioles help pollinate and ensure plant growth.

Try draping short pieces of white string or yarn on the ends of low trees or shrubs. Watch for orioles and other birds to collect the pieces for nest construction. This is also a good way to find their nest location.

We have had a pair of orioles in our yard each summer. Although my yarn disappears, I have not found their nests. I have observed a male feeding its offspring perched within the safe confines of a seven- to eight-foot hemlock on the north end of our backyard.

Bobolinks are about seven-inches long. The male's predominantly black summer attire is distinguished by a buff color on the back of its neck. The shoulders, rump and upper tail are tinged with white, gray and yellow. The back is streaked with pale yellow hues.

The female is a light buff to olive with lateral stripes of black along its back. In fall and winter, the male resembles the female although he is a bit larger.

Nests are built on the ground in shallow depressions. The female bobolink, preferring meadows and fields, lines the nest with dried leaves, plant stems and grass.

The four to seven drab eggs are splashed with random lines of browns and dark purple. A bobolink feeds mainly on insects during the breeding season. Once the young fledge from the nest, the family gathers in small flocks to dine on weed seeds and grass seeds.

The final colorful blackbird member is the 10-1/2-inch-long meadowlark. A dark black "V" shape separates the male's yellow neck and breast. The back is streaked with brown.

The female is similar, but smaller. They have a short squat shape, much like the starling. The female, preferring open areas, builds its nest on the ground. A small tunnel of bent grass blades leads to the nest. Grass is the main construction material.

Four to six white eggs with splotches of browns and pinks are laid within the course grass nest.

Meadowlarks are often seen perched upon fence posts. It is one of the few birds that tend to walk more than fly. Its characteristic flight is a low, half-sailing, half-fluttering pattern.

More than half of its diet consists of insects, including the grasshopper, which is a favorite. Weed seeds, grass seeds and grains are also consumed.

That's the way I see it!

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