One walking up Spring Road, paying attention to the noises of the surrounding forest some few weeks ago might have discerned a mysterious peeping that seemed to come right out of the ground. A closer approach to the curiosity would have yielded a small greyish-green bird that emerged from nowhere and commenced to flutter around on the path, dragging her wing and protesting loudly at the intrusion. Ovenbirds are named for the covered, dome-shaped nests (said to resemble Dutch ovens) which they build on the ground out of leaves, grass, and bark to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Ovenbirds themselves are not the most conspicuous of birds. They are large, thrush-like warblers 14-15 cm in length with olive or olive-grey backs and white undersides marked with black spots aligned in rows. Perhaps their most distinguishing feature is a rufous-orange central crown stripe, bordered by black stripes on either side. Males and females are very similar in appearance, females having a slightly duller coloration. Juveniles, however, are much browner in color with more indistinct markings on their undersides.
In April or May, ovenbirds migrate back to their summer breeding grounds from their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America, Florida, and the Caribbean. Males quickly establish and begin defending territories. They court females by pursuing them in flight, vocalizing all the while, and fluttering and singing with spread wings and tail high above the females. They two form a monogamous pair bond that lasts until the hatchlings fledge from their nest. The female is solely responsible for building the nests, which she lines with deer or other animal hair. She lays 3-6 glossy white, speckled eggs, which she incubates for 12 days, during which time she may be fed sporadically by the male. After the eggs hatch, both male and female bring food to the nest until they fledge in a week to ten days. The pair sometimes raises two broods in one season.
Ovenbirds are known for walking sedately across the forest floor bobbing their heads, rather than hopping or flying like many other songbirds. Males deliver their territory-marking song, often written as “teacher, teacher, teacher,” either from the forest floor or from perches up to 9 m above the ground. Both sexes forage in the leaf litter for insects and other invertebrates, and return repeatedly to areas where the foraging is very good.
Although ovenbirds are abundant in many areas and have a very wide distribution (their breeding range spreads north to eastern British Columbia and Newfoundland and south to Arkansas and North Carolina), they are limited to large, mature, continuous tracts of forest. They are very sensitive to habitat fragmentation. Studies have recorded negative effects on ovenbird populations caused by disturbances as limited as forest roads, powerline corridors, and lines created for seismic exploration. Populations also suffer when exposed to chronic industrial noise. Because the species is so sensitive, it has become a model organism for research concerned with the effects of habitat fragmentation on songbirds. Robust populations remain in a number of largely undisturbed core habitat regions, including rural Appalachia.
This individual was found on the Lewis steps.
No photos are included because the individual on display was found dead from a recent collision with a window. See images here, thanks to the Arkive species account.