Last week I mentioned my birding group at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge enjoyed views of a first-year male orchard oriole.
I received several inquiries as to how I knew how old the bird was. Many sandpipers have distinctive juvenile plumages that the birds hold through the fall migration.
Gulls can take two to four years to reach maturity and may have a distinctive plumage for each year of their immaturity. Each spring, area birders see some summer tanagers that are in the process of molting into adult male breeding plumage from immature plumage, but those birds are rapidly coming into the adult plumage.
The orchard oriole is unusual among our common breeding birds in that it has a first-year male plumage that is very different from the adult plumage. The young birds arrive in the spring along with mature adult males, sing the same song and establish territories. But where 2-year-old males and older have a familiar oriole pattern of black and chestnut, the younger birds are lemon yellow with a prominent black bib.
It can be extremely confusing to an inexperienced birder. It looks like a completely different species, and though most field guides depict the younger male plumage, it is often overlooked when thumbing through identification references.
Though the younger birds The orchard oriole is unusual among our common breeding birds in that it has a first-year male plumage that is very different from the adult plumage. can reproduce, they have difficulty finding a mate because females usually will pick an adult male to maximize nesting success.
Another songbird that causes similar confusion is the American redstart. Like the orchard oriole, the males do not attain the black and orange plumage of adults until they are 2 years old.
These males closely resemble females and will sing the American redstart song during migration and through the breeding season, but also are less successful at breeding for the same reasons as the orchard oriole. For a comparison of adult males and first-year males of these species, go to my blog at Piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.
For both species, this may be a strategy to enable females to readily identify younger, inexperienced males in order to pick a male that is better able to select and defend a territory and help with parenting duties.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com