Look at a Baltimore oriole nest. Tell me how a routine job for an ordinary bird resulted in this extraordinary work of art.

Most oriole nests are impressive. For that matter, many bird nests fit that category. But there’s one I find exceptional. (More on that later.)

Choice of tree, location of tree, the particular branch, those are inherent choices. Every oriole makes those choices.

All oriole nests are pendant; they hang. Orioles most often use stems of grass or other flexible plant material.

The nest could include material from a variety of plants, maybe some bark torn from a birch tree. Even string or hair ribbon. A scientific profile of the bird mentioned a nest made of cellophane.

Oriole nests are flexible, pliable, soft like old wool stockings or mittens.

Resilience is essential. The nest must stretch with the movement of the birds, sway in breeze and wind, survive rain.

You can find used oriole housing in bare trees in fall. Nests hang like late-blooming flowers. The birds build new nests in the spring. Reuse is rare. It’s more common to scavenge material from an old nest.

My favorite oriole nest is made of horsehair, an uncommon choice. It is not soft or pliable. Built in 2019, it hung about 14 feet off the ground, directly over the parking spot used by a friend for his truck. He stood on the cab of the truck to snip off the branch holding the no-longer-used nest, one of four built in his large yard in the past three years.

The other nests in the yard were made of grass.

The horsehair nest is firm like a reed basket. It is so tightly woven it looks like it might hold water. Perhaps that is the nature of weathered horsehair. Or it was the skill of the bird. She certainly gets credit for the tight weave.

Could you craft this nest given enough horsehair? Not me.

The oriole began with vertical strands attached to the branch (according to videos you can find on YouTube). Then she poked strands of hair outside to inside and vice versa. She pulled them tight, then wove them back through, again and again.

She wrapped more hair around branches to anchor the nest. She shaped the nest, giving it the narrow entry and wide body. She tucked away loose ends.

She probably worked on this during daylight hours for a week. A two-horse stable is nearby, by the way.

I watched another nest being built in mid-May. The bird was well into construction when I got lucky and spotted it. I watched her the next day for six hours as she finished. I watched her poke and pull. She worked fast.

The birds that hatched in that nest would be males and females, likely a mix. You would not know who from who for certain, however, for about 18 months.

Oriole males molt into their best-known colors, royal orange and midnight black, in the fall of their second year. Until then they resemble their mother. Some of the apparent females visiting your feeders this summer could be young males.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.