baltimore oriole toronto

Toronto woman creates heated shelter for Baltimore Oriole in backyard throughout winter

A Toronto birder has made the most adorable home for what appears to be a Baltimore Oriole to shelter in through the winter.

Stella Bastone constructed a heated shelter for the bird in her yard filled with mealworm and peanut snacks, but despite the -25C wind chill the bird has been surviving off "dining and dashing" since mid-November.

"I've been feeding birds in my west Toronto backyard for years, and the Baltimore Orioles always show up in our area around May. They spend a few months here in Ontario for the breeding season and then around August return to hot and sunny Central America, where they spend most of the year," Bastone told blogTO.

"This is not a species that's equipped to easily live through our northern winters. The main challenge, apparently, is not so much the cold as the scarcity of food. It's not known why some individual birds stay behind when the rest of their species migrate, but it appears that these individuals rely on food provided by humans to survive the winter."

Both Bastone and her husband are professors, and wanted the design of their special birdhouse to be welcoming to this one specific bird while protecting her food from other species.

"Huge flocks of invasive, non-native birds called Starlings and House Sparrows were mobbing all my bird feeders, and my husband and I realized that this Oriole might need a little extra help," says Bastone.

"My husband 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. It took some trial and error, lots of observing and moving things around, but the Oriole did start frequenting a certain feeder that was free of the invasive mobs."

The floor of Bastone's shelter is lightly warmed by a heated pad, and she's also experimented with oranges and jelly for snacks, but has found her feathered friend prefers the nuts and worms.

"We tried different food offerings, including grape jelly and oranges, which are staple offerings for Orioles in spring and summer, but our Oriole wasn't interested in these, and instead only went for peanuts, suet and mealworms, which makes sense since they need the fats and proteins in our cold winter environment," says Bastone.

"So everything seemed to be going reasonably well until we saw reports that a frigid polar vortex was going to descend onto Ontario. We started talking about a more sheltered space for the Oriole, bought a lightly heated pad made for chickens, and then designed a wooden structure to fit around it, with a window of plexiglass and thick natural stone tile for the roof."

All this was constructed using materials they already had on hand. The shelter also features a door wide enough for the bird to get in and out quickly and a small platform. The pair of profs even built the bird her own little heated birdbath which she actually sips from rather than bathes in as it's too cold.

"I designed a few learning exercises for her, gradually enticing her to use the shelter for quick food pickups. Amazingly, she learned very quickly. She doesn't linger in the shelter, she only dashes in and out for quick bites. I'm still experimenting with the food, and still doing lots of research on what will be healthiest for her," says Bastone.

"Right now she is loving the live mealworms that we've been lucky enough to still find at Wild Birds Unlimited. A huge perk with bird feeding during this pandemic is that we're able to support the many small businesses that sell bird feeders and related supplies; there are so many of these in Ontario."

Bastone's goal is for the bird to survive through the winter so she can reconnect with her own kind and possibly even reproduce.

"We've been told by several biologists and birder friends that she was probably born in 2020, so she is young. Our hope is that she will survive our winter. Not just survive, but continue to thrive solo, until the other Orioles return in the spring so she can reconnect with her own.

"Maybe she'll even have a family! 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 be her natural Oriole self, with a good healthy caution around people, their cats, and other mammals."

Sheltering the Oriole has actually turned out to be an unexpectedly incredible way to connect not only with the larger birding community but the outside world at large at a time when it's been so difficult to do so.

"Strangers are 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," says Bastone. 

"I think the pandemic and recent political events have struck sorrow and fear in a lot of us, and we're eager to see goodwill and generosity in others, eager to find ways to offset some of the negative impact we humans have had on the planet, eager to express gratitude, to find connections."

If you want to find connections of your own, or just get way too emotionally invested the way that Bastone confesses she has despite trying not to, winter is a great time to get into birding and give back to nature in a small way.

"Feeding birds in a responsible way, including doing research on ways to keep feeders and food super clean, not encouraging invasive species, gardening with our wonderful native Ontario plants, and always buying from reputable local sellers, can go a long way in supporting our native bird species whose resources are dwindling," says Bastone.

Lead photo by

Stella Bastone

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