As spring migration winds to a close and the breeding birds focus their attention on bringing another generation into the world, we often focus our attention on the birds that are raising their chicks in nests close to our homes. We celebrate our daily observations of cardinals and robins and finches, for instance, and we note their progress from nest building to egg laying to hatching to the fledging of their chicks.
Or we pay attention to the big, showy species that we can’t miss at our favorite nature preserve, like ospreys or herons or swans. We feel a personal sense of satisfaction when we see them deliver another stick to reinforce their nest or when we see a tiny face peeking out.
But a great many bird species are unintentionally ignored, perhaps because they’re difficult to observe or are uncommon in our neighborhood or because we don’t even know they exist. Yet they deserve a little respect, too.
So, as the school year comes to a close – and what a challenging year it was – it seems
appropriate to honor the ovenbird, the
mascot of teachers everywhere because it sings a raucous song of TEA-cher,
|Ovenbird by Don Blecha/MacAuley Library|
The ovenbird is among the loudest of the spring songsters – and no, I’m not going to equate that trait with any teachers I know – so they are easy to hear in almost any forest in the area. But they are extremely difficult to see. With a tan back and wings, a streaked breast, and a dull orange stripe through their crown, they blend in well with the forest floor, where they spend most of their lives hunting for insects among the leaf litter.
By now, most ovenbirds are sitting on their eggs in one of North America’s strangest nests. Unlike the typical cup-like nest built by most birds, ovenbirds build oven-like nests – domed structures made of dead leaves and grasses and lined with animal hair – that the birds enter from the side like an old-fashioned oven. Hence their name.
Every year around the first week of May, ovenbirds arrive from their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and Central America and burst forth with their breeding call to announce that they are back and ready to raise a family. And every year when I hear them, I do my best to see one and fail. It can be incredibly frustrating. An ovenbird will be singing loudly seemingly an arm’s-length away and I can’t find it. So I walk a little further and I’ll hear another one close by, and I can’t find that one either.
If I wait long enough, eventually the bird will take a short flight and I might get a glimpse of it, but seldom does it sit still in an easily observed location for long. I guess in that way they may be like a few teachers I know, who prefer to remain hidden from their students after the school year ends.
It’s not until they’re finished breeding later in the summer that I tend to see ovenbirds in more open areas, including in my garden looking for an easy meal. But by then they’ve stopped singing and they’re gearing up for another trip south for the winter.
And that’s not at all like our teachers. While the teacher bird relaxes in the tropics for the winter, its namesake humans are teaching another class full of students. And, when necessary, occasionally bursting forth with a raucous call of their own.