Toronto couple team up to save oriole the “snow bird”

Young Baltimore Oriole survives Canadian winter with a little help from her friends

Toronto’s little orphan oriole has made it through a brutal Canadian winter thanks to her adoptive parents Stella and Gord.

It took lots of love, caring and work but Violet – the name the couple have given their little “snow bird” – not only survived winter, but seems to have come out the other end in good health. After all, the young Baltimore Oriole dined on an assortment of Stella’s finest, homemade “almond bites” in her fully heated, big-city Pied-a-Terre where the couple worked vigilantly to provide everything the oriole needed to survive the frigid Toronto temperatures.

The specialized, homemade roosting box included a heated floor to help the oriole escape the most frigid temperatures, and even a small, heated birdbath that she used more as a source of water than a place to bathe.

The female Baltimore Oriole, who chose to remain in her favourite Canadian city throughout the winter, probably owes her life to the Toronto couple – both Toronto university professors – who noticed the oriole hanging around late last fall and realized that it was not going to fly south with its family for the winter. That’s when they stepped in to ensure the bird was not going to succumb to a Toronto winter.

Violet, the little Oriole who survived a difficult Canadian winter with the help of two Toronto professors who went to great lengths to help the little Oriole survive.

Violet, the little Oriole who survived a difficult Canadian winter with the help of two Toronto professors who went to great lengths to help the little Oriole survive.

Several biologists and birder friends suggested that the Oriole was probably born in the summer of 2020. The couple are now hoping that the young bird continues to fly solo until the other Orioles return in the spring so she can reconnect with her own.

"Maybe she'll even have a family,” Stella told Toronto Blog earlier this winter when they were trying to find ways to help the Oriole. “We realize she may not stick around our ‘hood’ once the warmer weather arrives. This is par for the course. We have not done anything to encourage her to let her guard down around humans; we keep a distance. She needs to be her natural Oriole self, with a good healthy caution around people, their cats, and other mammals,” explained Stella.

Her adventure began in late fall after a summer of feeding the birds in her Toronto west backyard, including groups of local orioles. That’s when she noticed something unusual.

“I started putting suet out in November and one day around November 15 I happened to notice this young little female clinging to the suet cage, and I knew it was likely she wouldn’t migrate. After that I started keeping an eye out for her, and the little food experiments started,” Stella explained to Ferns and Feathers in an email communication.

For more on Orioles, check out my posts on attracting orioles with oranges and jelly and the best oriole feeders.

There were several female Baltimore Orioles in New York state that were documented all winter, and a couple of males in that same state which were not regularly documented/updated.
— Stella Bastone

Earlier this winter, Stella told Toronto Blog that her husband Gord “is super handy with wood, and we spent days sketching out designs for several feeders that would discourage Starlings and House Sparrows and still allow other species to feed.” She explains that after “some trial and error, lots of observing and moving things around, (Violet) started frequenting a certain feeder that was free of the invasive mobs.”

But Stella and Gord didn’t stop there. Drawing on their educational backgrounds, the couple set up a camera to keep a close eye on Violet while she was inside the roosting box and use that information to focus in on her favourite foods and how they could keep her safe from the more aggressive birds.

“We have set up a Blink security camera system, and we put a few cameras around the Oriole’s platform," she explained in an email to Ferns and Feathers.

“It has a motion sensor feature, so whenever she visits (or when other birds/squirrels visit), I get a notification on my phone,” Stella explains.

Violet enters her custom roosting box complete with heated floor and assortment of food. Video provided by Stella Bastone.

“The system records up to 30 seconds of footage at a time. This has been instrumental in helping me come up with tweaks to the feeding stations and foods for her! Every time I make a little change, I watch the short footage clips carefully to gauge whether I should make more adjustments. (For example, I make what I call “almond bites” for her – consisting of a base of ground almonds and pure lard – and there are a variety of natural additives. With careful observation and some research I’ve come up with 4 “flavours” that she likes. One set is “Red” – with powdered strawberry and raspberry. One is “Green” – with powdered hemp hearts, ground pumpkin seeds. One is “Orange” – powdered orange, chopped dried apricot. One is “Purple” – chopped dried blueberries, powdered berries. I can also see what she eats first, what’s her least favourite, how she’s able to eat foods of various densities and sizes, etc.”

Online community also lends a hand

Stella and Gord were never alone in their quest to help the oriole. The very active online birding community followed along with Violet’s journey and the couple were able to hook up with others in Canada and the United States who were caring for their own orioles that chose not to fly south to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

“There were several female Baltimore Orioles in New York state that were documented all winter, and a couple of males in that same state which were not regularly documented/updated,” explained Stella.

“There is a male Baltimore Oriole who has survived all winter in Haliburton Ontario, and is still doing well. And at least several others in states south of NY. On a less positive note, there was a very well-document female Baltimore Oriole north of Barrie who disappeared in January, as did a Summer Tanager who was wintering near there,” she added.

“A wonderful woman named Marlene was the one looking after the female near Barrie, Ontario. She and I connected regularly to compare notes. Like the others helping out wintering Orioles, she was offering grape jelly and oranges (neither of which my local Oriole cared for), and she also mentioned she was offering live mealworms – that’s where I got the live mealworm idea,” explains Stella.

Video of Violet getting a drink in a heated bird bath during a snowstorm. Video provided by Stella Bastone.

The live meal worms which she was able to get from a local branch of Wild Birds Unlimited proved to be a favourite for Violet providing much-needed protein to keep the bird’s fat content high.

Earlier this winter, Stella told Toronto blog that strangers have been “so eager to reach out to us: ‘thank you for being good humans’, they say. We are amazed. In recent weeks I’ve connected with several others who are also caring for wintering Orioles, or even Tanagers, in Canada and northern States. We are sharing our observations and notes on our efforts.” she says.

Drawing on their education background, the couple designed learning exercises for Violet. The goal was to teach the bird to use the shelter for quick food pickups. Violet seemed eager to learn, not only finding the shelter quickly but learning to quickly fly in and out of the shelter for quick bites.

Oriole proves to be a quick learner

Other, more aggressive, non-native birds discovered the roosting box and more action was necessary to ensure Violet’s survival.

Stella explains that just recently they have had to “set up a few additional feeding spaces since there were all kinds of “breaches” happening in her shelter – squirrels and Starlings started entering.”

“Since I anticipated something like this, I had already started leaving orange ribbons next the feeder bowls inside the shelter, so that our smart little Oriole would associate her food with the orange ribbon and be drawn to orange ribbons elsewhere. So, after the breaches, I set up another semi-enclosed area nearby, with the food bowls mostly out of sight, but with orange ribbon visible, and sure enough the Oriole discovered it right away. Then I did this again with a third little feeder enclosure slightly farther away, and she discovered that quickly too. Eventually I will have to dismantle her raised platform (which is up against our dining room window) so I am glad she knows about the third enclosed area – this will soon have tall ferns growing all around and concealing it, but with any luck the Oriole will continue to flourish and will know to go to that feeder for her mealworms and almond bites. Of course we’re also bracing for the possibility she will stop returning to our yard someday!”

As spring settles in around her Toronto neighbourhood, Stella awaits the return of the Orioles and other birds that she has been feeding in her approximately 40X75-foot backyard.

She explains her yard is larger than a typical Toronto yard “especially the newer ones “where developers are making huge houses with very little green space, after applying for exemptions to the rules – absolutely tragic. Many of our neighbours have similar sized back yards (except for the ones in newly-built developer houses), and since this was historically a European neighbourhood, there are very many fruit trees around here,” she explains.

“I have planted several native berry shrubs: serviceberry, winterberry, chokeberry, dogwoods. I also planted a few very narrow “nativars” called Weeping White Spruce and Louie White Pine, which are better suited for our urban space than the species evergreens.”

Her commitment to native plants may help to explain her success in attracting birds to her big-city garden.

“I started seriously getting into bird feeding maybe 5 years ago. (Before that I just sprinkled seed on the ground now and then.) I have maybe 25 feeders now, but they’re never all out at once. It depends on the time of year, the types of birds that are around,” Stella explains.

“Since my aim is to support local native species whose resources are dwindling, I really don’t want to encourage larger populations of non-native species like House Sparrows and Starlings, so I try to exclude them. There’s not really a 100% effective way to exclude them while feeding all local species, but I have found some partial solutions. For example, I have quite a few caged feeders – these keep Starlings out, and to discourage House Sparrows from those same feeders, I attach thin wire filaments which seem to spook House Sparrows for reasons that are not well understood. I also have almost all of the feeders in the Brome Squirrel Buster line of feeders, which are 100% effective at keeping squirrels at bay. I use a hopper feeder for whole peanuts, which draws Blue Jays all winter (and all of the blackbirds starting in spring). On my tube feeders, I have a "Magic Halo" dangling overhead to discourage House Sparrows. Click here for link to magic halo website.

With the Orioles preparing to invade her Toronto area neighbourhood again this spring, she says she will be ready with her Orange halves and grape jelly to welcome them back to town.

Across Ontario, and northern United States birders will be anxiously awaiting their return along with other migrants, including hummingbirds and warblers, many who decide to make our yards their home for the summer.

Some, like many of the warblers, will continue their journey farther north where insects and other reliable food sources may be more abundant.

In Toronto, Stella and Gord will be watching their little Violet with great anticipation that her long winter will end in a reunion with her family and friends and maybe even lead to her whole family. In fact, their latest Youtube video shows Violet is busy collecting material to build weave her intricate nest.

While we struggled in our own ways over the winter to survive a difficult, sometimes lonely pandemic period, we can all appreciate the struggle Violet endured trying to survive a cold winter without her family and friends by her side.

She did have Stella and Gord – two of the best friends a bird could hope for – watching over her and ensuring that she survived to sing another day.

Why birds choose not to migrate

It’s commonly believed that birds migrate because of the cold temperatures in fall and winter, but, in fact, birds are more driven to migrate in search of food. Birds that depend on insects and berries must move south as cold temperatures either kill off insects or force them into hiding under fallen leaves and in tiny crevices where they wait out the winter in relative safety from the cold and birds.

Many birds, including Orioles, travel as far south as parts of Central or South America in search of an abundance of both insects and fruit, while some cut their journey short and decide to remain in Mexico or the southern United States.

(If you are interested in the migration and annual cycle of the Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles, Check out this comprehensive, month by month breakdown.)

Young birds, like Violet, injured birds or sick and malnourished birds often decide not to make the long journey south and, instead, try to survive the winter on their own. Many eventually begin to depend on the food we provide in our feeders to get them through the winter. Bug-filled suet cakes, meal worms and fruit are excellent sources of food for these birds and are often a key ingredient to get them through the most difficult of times.

Specialty bird feeding stores like Wild Birds Unlimited are good sources for these products or you can be like Stella and make your own to help them through the winter.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

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Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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