A reader and friend, Robin Mirollo, provokes us to think a little more deeply about the Baltimore Oriole nest. She writes:

Your photo brings to mind how both my maternal grandmother and mother liked to leave colorful yarn and ribbon on the bannister in the spring in the hope that birds would choose them. It’s fascinating that birds like to weave bright strands into their nests. Why would they do that and what is the meaning? Is it simply decoration and why would they choose to make their nests more conspicuous rather than more fully camouflaged?

I’ve long wondered whether creatures of the wild have an esthetic sense. Is the blue ribbon on this nest a form of decoration, a purely creative expression, as Robin asks, or is it placed there to show pride of ownership, to stake a territorial claim, or to attract a mate? There must be a good reason, either creative or practical, or both, as it could certainly invite unwelcome attention by predators and humans, alike.

Robin searched the Web and found many other examples of Baltimore Oriole nests adorned with blue strips — strips similar to ours, and said to be remnants of disintegrating plastic tarps. Not all nests had them; in fact, a majority of the Baltimore Oriole nests pictured had none at all. Could it be just another building material, used when available, but with no significance beyond that? In speculating thus, do we run the risk of ignoring our eyes, or underestimating these little birds?

In fact, it’s hard to take such a practical view when you examine our nest carefully. Woven throughout the body of the nest are small lengths of the blue plastic, while longer lengths are wound carefully around the top. The oriole mother has used the material both structurally in the pouch and decoratively at the top, suggesting that she made a distinction. To see more clearly how bits of blue ribbon are woven into the body of the nest, click on the photo, and then click again, to enlarge it further, when the little plus sign or magnifying glass appears.

Our nest is frugally adorned, compared to some more fancifully dressed with blue strips, that Robin found online. To fully appreciate what Robin and I are excited about, you really must see those examples. Here are a few: 1., 2., 3., and 4.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of the color blue; doubtless blue strips are available in great quantity in some areas, especially where construction is under way. Photo #4., above, shows a silver ribbon on the nest, from a child’s balloon, along with the blue tarp strips. Our nest also had a length of silver ribbon on it, at the top, in the back; it was narrow, the kind you tie presents with. If strips of other colors were available in large quantities, it’s altogether possible the orioles would use them too.

Many birds build intricate nests. Some birds routinely add bits of colored yarn and other found materials to their nests. What sets this story apart, and makes it so fascinating, is that some Baltimore Orioles appear to have embraced nest-decorating with a passion, using one found material, the blue plastic strip. What’s more, they’ve done so with a panache that could easily be taken for human. Do creatures of the wild have an esthetic sense? It’s a seductive question.

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One Response to Blue Ribbon Mystery*

  1. Alix Bartsch says:

    This is a very interesting question. It also makes me want to put ribbons and strings out next spring!

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