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 Golden Oriole - Fact File

Golden Oriole
female (left) male

Oriolus oriolus
Small numbers breed in East Anglia. Also rare passage migrant.
The small British population breeds in poplar plantations.

Male unmistakable. Female generally greenish, but some have more yellow like males. Often difficult to see as the birds stay mainly in the treetops.

24cm (9.5")

Golden Oriole

From the days of one's first identification book the tantalising Golden Oriole remains a constant attraction to bird-watchers. One of the most striking of summer visitors, it has become an annual feature of the East Anglian fens. And in most years, the fenland colony provides the only British breeding records.

Despite brilliant colouring, orioles are often difficult to see slipping through the foliage where sun, shade and trembling leaves create a broken pattern of black and yellow - perfect for hiding from prying eyes. The male, beautifully patterned in buttercup-yellow and jet black, may first reveal his presence by glorious fluting. Females, with their cat-like squalling, are greener and no easier to detect.

Large-scale planting of hybrid black poplars took place in the fens during the 1950s and 1960s. These plantations have attracted up to 30 pairs of orioles for some 20 years. No other bird protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (meaning that it may not be disturbed at or near the nest without a licence) depends on lowland broad-leaved woodland. In fact, it is the most threatened British bird depending on this habitat.

Most plantations are now mature and many will be felled or will deteriorate due to old age during the next decade. So the RSPB has launched a campaign urging a doubling in the area of poplars in agricultural land in the fens over the next 15 years.

Each pair of orioles needs between 400 and 1000 poplars at least seven years' old within a sq km with the woodland edges as long as possible. Willows, elders and alders can be planted around the edges to soften the effect of the regimented poplars. An early demand for poplar wood was for matches, but this has all but disappeared.

The trees were also widely used in shelterbelts to reduce wind erosion of fen peat soils. Nowadays, most poplar timber is used to make pallets and boxes and also veneers from the highest quality butts. This is sufficient to keep the industry alive, but not to stimulate much new planting.

The best plantation for orioles in the late 1970s held as many as 13 pairs. Sadly this total has been severely reduced by extensive felling. Now there is renewed interest of planting poplars as a result of Government policy to find alternative uses for farmland and a wider appreciation of the potential value of poplar timber.

New plantations can be created to suit the needs of orioles and also to attract maximum grant aid. Schemes are available from the Forestry Commission, MAFF, the Countryside Commission and the four county councils covering fenland. The RSPB is keen to see farmers well rewarded to activities that are beneficial to birds.

Male golden orioles return early in May, often arriving a week or more before the females. Soon the plantations echo to the elusive, flute-like whistling. Courtship displays are spectacular. The make pursues the female at high speeds through and above the trees, following so closely that he almost touches her tail.

His every movement comforms exactly to hers; there appears to be only one bird with two pairs of wings. The remarkable nest is a deep closely-woven cup (to reduce the danger of eggs or young tumbling out) slung like a hammock from the branches of a horizontal fork near the end of a bough.

Eighteen nests were located during one recent summer at heights ranging from 7.5 metres to 26 metres. Not surprisingly they sway alarmingly, but well withstand storms. At nesting time the parents become bold and pugnacious attacking crows, magpies, cuckoos and kestrels crossing their territory.

The plantations again become silent by mid-August. The oriole families then commence the perilous journey to tropical Africa running the gauntlet of the trappers en route.

.By Michael J Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.