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April 28, 2020
Are you missing professional sports as the nation pulls together to slow the spread of COVID-19? In case watching old games is getting…well…old, we figured that our first ever Forests for the Birds celebration of spring would be the perfect occasion to highlight the avian Major League Baseball mascots and the teams that endear these species to their fans.
This article was written by Ryan Davis with contributions by Ben Johnson, fan of both baseball and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay!
A male Baltimore oriole is photographed at the Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory at Chino Farms in Chestertown, Md., on May 11, 2016. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Ben Johnson: Of course we have to start with the team that plays a stone’s throw from the Chesapeake Bay! The O’s have called Baltimore home – after spending the first half of the 20th century as the St. Louis Browns – since 1954. While as the Browns the team only made the playoffs once, the franchise found more than their share of luck after the move to Charm City. From 1966-1983, the Orioles were one of the most successful teams in baseball, playing in the World Series six times and winning three titles. Things haven’t been quite as rosy for the black and orange since then, but they did make the postseason three times this past decade, and while a lot would have to break right for the 2020 squad to do the same, they still get to play their home games at Camden Yards, one of the most beautiful parks in baseball.
Ryan Davis: Speaking of beautiful, the Baltimore Oriole (yep, that’s what the species is called, Icterus galbula to be scientific) has stunning plumage and a gorgeous song. Its name comes from the striking black and orange coloration of adult males which resembles the family crest of the English Baltimore family, who the Maryland city is also named after. While females are much more drab in color, they have been known to sing along with their paired male, which is somewhat rare for songbirds. The Baltimore Oriole song is a series of rich, clear, paired whistles that are sung repeatedly from treetops. Their woven hanging nests are a true delight to find, but because the robin-sized birds often dwell high up in deciduous trees, you are more likely to hear orioles than see them, despite their bright colors.
Baltimore Orioles are specialists of open woodlands, where their diet of insects, fruit, and nectar are plentiful. Because of their preference for an open understory, Baltimore Orioles are somewhat common in parks and neighborhoods with large canopy trees. In the wild, I most often see them on forest edges and in rich floodplain forests. These members of the blackbird family (Icteridae) are neotropical migrants, spending their summers breeding in the eastern United States and their winters in Central/South America, islands in the Caribbean, and Florida. Baltimore Oriole populations have declined by 24% since the 1960s, but are not considered to be of conservation concern, largely because they are somewhat adaptable to human-dominated landscapes. Still, the continued conversion of forests to agriculture or development across their range (including the tropics) and a general decline in native plants and insect populations means that we can expect these beautiful birds to continue to lose numbers as time goes on.
Blue Jay. (Photo courtesy Jake Dingel, PA Game Commission)
Ben: Toronto’s first plan to bring a pro baseball team to Canada involved buying the San Francisco Giants and moving them north of the border. After that purchase fell through, Torontonians had to settle for the Blue Jays, who joined the league in 1977 as an expansion team. The Jays struggled for most of their first decade in existence, but the team took off in the early ‘90s, when they made the playoffs three straight years and won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. The less said about the next twenty years the better, but the current team has several exciting young second-generation players that could bring the Blue Jays back to prominence for years to come.
Ryan: There is no doubt in my mind that the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, will be prominent and abundant into the foreseeable future. This large, common species is one of the most recognizable songbirds in the eastern US thanks to its bright blue plumage, crest of feathers, and gregarious nature. Blue Jays often have the reputation of bullies because they will scare other birds away from feeders by mimicking the calls of hawks, but they are less aggressive than many other songbird species. If you still aren’t convinced that Blue Jays don’t deserve your ire, here’s a fun fact: they mate for life! Their mimicry extends beyond raptors; they will sometimes mimic other sounds, from songbirds to cats meowing. Their loud jeer and squeadle calls can be loud and seem incessant, especially when you’re trying to listen to other birds in the woods.
Blue Jays are notably intelligent like the other members of Corvidae, the crow and raven family. They have been observed using simple tools in captivity and in the wild are experts at caching food to find and eat later. This caching behavior, and their love of acorns, makes them important dispersers of oaks, which they inadvertently plant when they don’t get around to retrieving the acorns that they buried. Blue Jays can carry 5 acorns at a time thanks to a modified pouch in their throat, and individual birds have been documented caching up to a whopping 5,000 acorns in a single autumn! They specialize in forest edges and mixed habitat, and are adaptable to human-dominated landscapes, as long as there are plenty of oak trees around.
A northern cardinal visits a red maple tree on March 3, 2014. (Photo by Steve Droter/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Ben: The Cardinals are one of the oldest franchises in professional sports, having sprung into existence all the way back in 1882. That longevity has brought with it substantial success to the tune of 11 World Series championships, the first coming in 1926 and the most recent in 2011. Their status as perennial contenders – they have only missed the playoffs eight times since 2000 – makes them the focus of a lot of fans’ ire (read: jealousy), and they are poised to once again threaten for a division title in 2020 thanks to a strong offense and a deep pitching rotation. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the “Cardinal Way” looks like it will produce more positive results for St. Louis fans for years to come.
Ryan: Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are beloved both within and outside of Missouri as year-round backyard birds. Indeed, they are the state bird of seven states! Ubiquitous in the eastern US and almost universally identifiable, the Northern Cardinal’s crest of feathers and crimson plumage make them undeniably attractive, especially as pops of color in the dull winter landscape. Adult males are a bright red from head to toe, and females are a grayish light brown color with accents of red along their tail, crest, and wings. Both sexes have a thick red bill, specialized for crushing seeds. Both males and females will sing, a string of whistles that to me resembles the pew pew pew of a science fiction laser beam.
Cardinals are specialists of dense shrub cover, and spend most of their time searching for seeds and fruit in brush. They seem to be indifferent to other habitat traits, and will be found in deep forests, on forest edges, or in suburbs, as long as there is ample shrub cover. Northern Cardinals have actually seen steady population increases over the last few decades because they integrate well with human development. They are a great way to get people excited about birds, so it’s a good thing they’re so common!
Questions (on non-baseball matters)? Reach out to Ryan Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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