It was about 10 minutes before 6 a.m., and I stood looking out the kitchen window into the pre-dawn gloom. Sept. 11, 2006, was off to a gray and drizzling start. The somber anniversary was reflected in the weather as well as the newspaper headlines.
A business meeting on Capitol Hill ended about 3 p.m., so I decided to go home and work from there for the remainder of the afternoon. By 4:30, I was back in the kitchen again, this time brewing a cup of afternoon tea. The weather was dramatically cooler than the previous weekend, but the rain had finally stopped and the sun was breaking through. I opened the door and was startled to see that the backyard was teeming with birds.
Two dozen goldfinches were swarming over the seed heads of the prairie cone flowers. They were joined in the yard by a host of regulars: wrens, blue jays, cardinals, finches, hummingbirds and so on. Two different kinds of woodpeckers, an unidentified warbler, a somewhat confused common yellowthroat, and three Baltimore orioles completed the crowd in our inner-beltway backyard.
The orioles were the ones that got me outside with binoculars in hand. The brightly colored birds have come through our yard before, but they are infrequent visitors. The brilliant orange breast of a male flashed through the sky and alit in the venerable sycamore tree at the corner of the property. Moments later, two more orioles came rocketing into view. I was having trouble keeping up with all the activity.
Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula) are strikingly handsome birds. The iconic male is orange with a jet-black head and upper back. His black wings show an orange patch and white bars, and his black tail has orange corners. A straight, sharp black beak seems to accentuate his relatively large size, about 9 inches. As with many other avian species, females and young are more muted in their colors. Yellows and golds replace orange, and a dusty brown substitutes for black.
Baltimore orioles were at the center of an ornithological battle in the 1970s that continues in some circles today. Based on the fact that the species breeds with Bullock’s oriole in a narrow band where the two birds overlap, the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist of North American Birds in 1973 lumped the two birds together under a new name: Northern Oriole.
Baseball fans were outraged that their beloved O’s were being so cavalierly exiled to sub-species status, and thousands of bird watchers were dismayed to see their carefully maintained checklists thrown into disarray.
Good sense and good science have generally prevailed. Using a combination of physical characteristics (Bullock’s orioles don’t have an all-black head, for example), geographic separation and compelling DNA evidence, the union returned the Baltimore oriole to full citizenship in the avian community by 1985.
“Biological Species Concept” diehards remain unconvinced.
In a real sense, the whole name is wrong. The word “oriole” comes from the Latin “aureolus,” meaning golden, and it is the name of a family of Old World passerines that are not related to any of the New World orioles.
The birds reminded early American naturalists of the orioles of Europe, however, and the name stuck.
Although the orioles are named for the colors in Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms, the birds are hardly Baltimore natives. They build their remarkable hanging pendant nests in mature forests, and they forage for food (mostly insects, including caterpillars) in open woodlands and in the trees lining stream banks, not in urban centers.
The breeding range for Baltimore orioles stretches from the Upper Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic and includes all the Midwest and South, except for Florida.
But even calling the Baltimore oriole a U.S. bird is a misnomer.
The cold front that swept through Maryland on Sept. 10–11 carried one of the first major waves of fall migrants on its way south. Many birds, including Baltimore orioles, take advantage of the winds out of the north that herald autumn to speed their way to warmer climates.
And in the spring, they will grab a balmy southerly breeze to facilitate their return flight north.
The Baltimore orioles that flew through our backyard were on their way to Mexico or perhaps as far south as Columbia in South America.
These bright orange and black birds will fit right in with the colorful tropical birds they’ll find there. And that makes sense, because that’s really where they live. For seven months out of the year, Baltimore orioles are birds of the tropical forests of Central and South America. It is only for about four months that these beautiful birds visit us in the United States. (The final month is spent in annual migrations north and south.)
This anniversary day seemed to be reminding me that seasons change. The tragedy of that day five years ago still burns brightly, but there is also comfort to be found in the immutable beauty of nature, even when we get the names wrong. I found myself wishing that international affairs were as forgiving.