Two Kinds of Oven-Bird

Red Ovenbird
(Furnarius rufus)

William Henry Hudson

At frequent intervals during the day the male and female meet and express their joy in clear, resonant notes sung in concert—a habit common to species which pair for life. In a majority of species this vocal performance merely consists of a succession of confused notes or cries, uttered with great spirit and emphasis; in the Oven-bird it has developed into a kind of harmonious singing. Thus, the first bird, on the appearance of its mate flying to the place of meeting, emits loud, measured notes, sometimes a continuous trilling note with a somewhat hollow, metallic sound; but immediately on the other bird joining, this introductory passage is changed to rapid triplets, strongly accented on the first and last notes, while the second bird utters a series of loud measured notes perfectly according with the triplets of the first. While thus singing they stand facing each other, their necks outstretched, wings hanging, and tails spread, the first bird trembling with its rapid utterances, the second beating on the branch with its wings. The finale consists of three or four notes uttered by the second bird alone, and becoming successively louder and more piercing until the end. There is an infinite variety in the tone in which different couples sing, also in the order in which the different notes are uttered, and even the same couple do not repeat their duet in precisely the same way; but it is always a rhythmical and, to some extent, an harmonious performance, and as the voices have a ringing, joyous character, it produces a pleasing effect on the mind.

In favourable seasons the Oven-birds begin building in the autumn, and the work is resumed during the winter whenever there is a spell of mild, wet weather. Some of their structures are finished early in winter, others not until spring, everything depending on the weather and the condition of the birds. In cold, dry weather, and when food is scarce, they do not work at all. The site chosen is a stout horizontal branch, or the top of a post, and they also frequently build on the roof of a house ; and sometimes, but rarely, on the ground. The material used is mud, with the addition of horsehair or slender fibrous rootlets, which make the structure harder and prevent it from cracking. I have frequently seen a bird, engaged in building, first pick up a thread or hair, then repair to a puddle, where it was worked into a pellet of mud about the size of a filbert, then carried to the nest. When finished the structure is shaped outwardly like a baker's oven, only with a deeper and narrower entrance.

It is always placed very conspicuously, and with the entrance facing a building, if one be near, or if at a roadside it looks toward the road; the reason for this being, no doubt, that the bird keeps a cautious eye on the movements of people near it while building, and so leaves the nest opened and unfinished on that side until the last, and there the entrance is necessarily formed. When the structure has assumed the globular form with only a narrow opening, the wall on one side is curved inwards, reaching from the floor to the dome, and at the inner extremity an aperture is left to admit the bird to the interior or second chamber, in which the eggs are laid. A man's hand fits easily into the first or entrance chamber, but cannot be twisted about so as to reach the eggs in the interior cavity, the entrance being so small and high up. The interior is lined with dry, soft grass, and five white pear-shaped eggs are laid. The oven is a foot or more in diameter, and is sometimes very massive, weighing eight or nine pounds, and so strong that, unless loosened by the swaying of the branch, it often remains unharmed for two or three years. The birds incubate by turns, and when one returns from the feeding-ground it sings its loud notes, on which the sitting bird rushes forth to join in the joyous chorus, and then flies away, the other taking its place on the eggs. The young are exceedingly garrulous, and when only half-fledged may be heard practising trills and duets in their secure oven, in shrill tremulous voices, which change to the usual hunger-cry of young birds when the parent enters with food. After leaving the nest, the old and young birds live for two or three months together, only one brood being raised in each year. A new oven is built every year, and I have more than once seen a second oven built on the top of the first, when this has been placed very advantageously, as on a projection and against a wall.

A very curious thing occurred at the estancia house of a neighbour of mine in Buenos Ayres one spring. A pair of Oven-birds built their oven on a beam-end projecting from the wall of a rancho. One morning one of the birds was found caught in a steel trap placed the evening before for rats, and both of its legs were crushed above the knee. On being liberated it flew up to and entered the oven, where it bled to death, no doubt, for it did not come out again. Its mate remained two days, calling incessantly, but there were no other birds of its kind in the place, and it eventually disappeared. Three days later it returned with a new mate, and immediately the two birds began carrying pellets of mud to the oven, with which they plastered up the entrance. Afterwards they built a second oven, using the sepulchre of the dead bird for its foundation, and here they reared their young.

The Oven Bird
(Seiurus aurocapillus)

Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.



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