Bird BOOK LOOK – Chapter 12 – Cowbird + Baltimore Oriole

Missed Chapter 1? Begin HERE

Chapter 12 – Some Unlike Relatives

Having other curiosities to attend to meant Peter Rabbit did not visit the Old Orchard for several days. When he did it was to find the entire neighborhood quite upset. There was a meeting in progress in and around the tree in which Chebec and his modest little wife had their home. How the tongues did clatter! Peter knew that something had happened. Though he listened with all his might he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

Finally Peter managed to get the attention of Jenny Wren. “What’s happened?” asked Peter. “What’s all this fuss about?”

“Sally,” said Jenny. “Sally the Cowbird. I hoped she wouldn’t return to the Old Orchard this year, however she has. When Mr. and Mrs. Chebec returned from getting their breakfast this morning they found one of Sally’s eggs in their nest. They are terribly upset, and I don’t blame them. If I were in their place I simply would throw that egg out!”

Peter was puzzled. He blinked his eyes and stroked his whiskers as he tried to understand what it all meant. “Who is Sally, and what did she do that for?” he finally ventured.

“She’s a member of the Blackbird family,” said Jenny pausing long enough to get her breath. “She laid that egg in Chebec’s nest because she does not build a nest of her own or take care of her own children. Do you know what will happen, Peter?”

Cowbird by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Peter shook his head and confessed that he didn’t. “When that egg hatches out, that young Cowbird will be about twice as big as Chebec’s own children,” sputtered Jenny. “He’ll be so big that he’ll get most of the food.  And Chebec and his wife will be just soft-hearted enough to work themselves extra hard to feed that young bird because he is an orphan and hasn’t anybody to look after him. The worst of it is, Sally is likely to play the same trick on others. She always chooses the nest of some one smaller than herself. She’s very sly as no one has seen her about. She just sneaked into the Old Orchard this morning when everybody was busy, laid that egg, and sneaked out again.”

“Did you say that she is a member of the Blackbird family?” asked Peter.

Jenny Wren nodded vigorously. “That’s what she is,” she said. “Just listen to Goldy the Oriole over in that big elm. I don’t see how he can sing like that, knowing that one of his relatives has just done such a deed. It’s an odd thing that there can be two members of the same family so unalike. Mrs. Goldy builds one of the most wonderful nests of any one I know, and Sally doesn’t build any. If I were in Goldy’s place I–”

“Hold on!” cried Peter. “I thought you said Sally is a member of the Blackbird family. I don’t see what she’s got to do with Goldy the Oriole.”

“You don’t, eh?” said Jenny. “Well, the Orioles and the Meadow Larks and the Grackles and the Bobolinks all belong to the Blackbird family. They’re all related to Redwing the Blackbird, and Sally the Cowbird belongs in the same family.”

Peter gasped. “I–I–hadn’t the least idea that any of these folks were related,” stammered Peter.

“Well, they are,” replied Jenny Wren. “As I live, there’s Sally now!”

Peter caught a glimpse of a brownish-gray bird who reminded him somewhat of Mrs. Redwing Blackbird. She was about the same size and looked very much like her. It was plain that she was trying to keep out of sight, and the instant she knew that she had been discovered she flew away in the direction of the Old Pasture. It happened that late that afternoon Peter visited the Old Pasture and saw her again. She and some of her friends were busily walking about close to the feet of the cows, where they seemed to be picking up food. One had a brown head, neck and breast; the rest of his coat was glossy black. Peter rightly guessed that this must be Mr. Cowbird. Seeing them on such good terms with the cows he understood why they are called Cowbirds.

A portion of the old stone wall, like Peter sat along in the shade to think, between the Old Orchard and Green Forest.

Meanwhile, sure that Sally had left the Old Orchard, the feathered folks settled down to their personal affairs and household cares, with Jenny Wren amongst them. Having no one to talk to, Peter found a shady place close to the old stone wall and there he sat down to think over the surprising things he had learned. Presently Goldy the Baltimore Oriole alighted in the nearest apple tree, and it seemed to Peter that never had he seen any one more beautifully dressed. His head, neck, throat and upper part of his back were black. The lower part of his back and his breast were a beautiful deep orange color. There was a dash of orange on his shoulders, and the rest of his wings were black with an edging of white. His tail was black and orange. Peter had heard him called the Firebird, and now he understood why. His song was quite as rich and beautiful as his coat.

Shortly he was joined by Mrs. Oriole. She was very modestly dressed. She wore more brown than black, and where the orange color appeared it was rather dull. She wasted no time in singing. Almost instantly her sharp eyes spied a piece of string caught in the bushes almost over Peter’s head. With a little cry of delight she flew down and seized it. However the string was caught, and though she tugged and pulled with all her might she couldn’t get it free.

Goldy saw the trouble she was having and cutting his song short, flew down to help her. Together they pulled and tugged and tugged and pulled, until they had to stop to rest and get their breath.

“We simply must have this piece of string,” said Mrs. Oriole. “I’ve been hunting everywhere for a piece, and this is the first I’ve found. It is just what we need to bind our nest fast to the twigs. With this I won’t have the least bit of fear that that nest will ever tear loose, no matter how hard the wind blows.”

Once more they tugged and pulled and pulled and tugged until at last they got it free, and Mrs. Oriole flew away in triumph with the string in her beak. Goldy himself followed. Peter watched them fly to the top of a long, swaying branch of a big elm tree up near Farmer Brown’s house. He could see something which looked like a bag hanging there, and he knew that this must be the nest.

“Gracious!” said Peter. “They must get terribly tossed about when the wind blows. I should think their babies would be thrown out.”

Baltimore Oriole by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

“Don’t you worry about them,” said a voice.

Peter looked up to find Welcome Robin just over him.

“Mrs. Oriole makes one of the most wonderful nests I know of,” continued Welcome Robin. “It is like a deep pocket made of grass, string, hair and bark, all woven together like a piece of cloth. It is so deep that it is quite safe for the babies, and they seem to enjoy being rocked by the wind. I shouldn’t care for it myself because I like a solid foundation for my home, and yet the Orioles like it. It looks dangerous, however it really is one of the safest nests I know of. Snakes and cats never get way up there and there are few feathered nest robbers who can get at those eggs so deep down in the nest. Goldy is sometimes called Golden Robin. He isn’t a Robin at all, although I would feel very proud if he were a member of my family. He’s just as useful as he is handsome, and that’s saying a great deal. He just dotes on caterpillars. There’s Mrs. Robin calling me. Goodbye, Peter.”

With this Welcome Robin flew away and Peter once more settled himself to think over all he had learned.

P.L.A.Y. in Place Projects

Try these activities to extend your bird story adventures:

  • Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS –  Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS –  Baltimore Oriole
  • Nature journal coloring pages at Cornell Common Feeder Birds FREE ( page W68 Brown-headed Cowbird).
  • Q/A –Questions with answers to keep this conversation going are available for the Baltimore Oriole (p. 120-123) in the Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock offered FREE online HERE.
  • Another option is to get a copy of Fifty Favorite Birds Coloring Book by Lisa Bonforte and some colored pencils to complete the drawings of a Cowbird (p15) and a Baltimore Oriole (p1).

  • Also a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Book by Paul E. Kennedy with a Baltimore Oriole on page 28.

FYI -These coloring books are an excellent companion for this bird story series.

Source: Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton Burgess

P.L.A.Y. has provided a new online version of all 45 chapters of this updated and annotated 100+ year old public domain classic to:

  • be suitable for the 21st century family by having the Thornton Burgess woodland characters evolve to model mindfulness and loving kindness
  • highlight and bring awareness to the New England nature settings and offer an opportunity to learn more about birds and other woodland animals through this story adventure
  • create story extension moments through P.L.A.Y. suggested activities and investigations for making new nature connections generated by the reader’s own curiosity
  • encourage families to keep their own nature notebooks for drawing, writing, painting, and recording their own local daily outdoor P.L.A.Y. adventures.

P.L.A.Y. Time – Pass it on!