By Jeanne Church
On June 21st of this year, I met my very first ovenbird! I had heard of ovenbirds over the years, but had never seen one. What a great delight to finally meet up!
Ovenbirds are very particular about where they want to raise a family, and it’s nowhere near any of my usual photography venues like fish hatcheries, nature preserves, or bird sanctuaries. I was in Cadillac, Michigan, walking down a narrow forest road near a friend’s home when the road slowly meandered into the Manistee National Forest!
As I walked down that deeply forested road in the early morning hours, I was captivated by all the different birds I could hear. One sound in particular, though, really stood out. It was louder than all the others and very insistent. I wondered who the mystery singer might be. According to Merlin, my handy little app, it was an “ovenbird!”
The song it was singing has been described repeatedly by different writers as a loud ringing series of two-syllable phrases that sound like TEACHer-TEACHer- TEACHer, with each phrase getting progressively louder. Male ovenbirds do most of the singing and use their loud, insistent voices to claim territory or to attract a mate. Females rarely sing.
Once I knew there were ovenbirds in the area, I became quite vigilant about looking for them. Unfortunately, they are much harder to locate visually than they are to identify by sound.
An ovenbird is larger than your average warbler, but smaller than a song sparrow, and smaller than a bluebird. Its upper parts are dark olive brown, making it difficult to locate among the leaf litter where it spends most of its time! The ovenbird can be a little easier to locate when it’s perched on a limb and its white, heavily streaked breast offers a bit of contrast to the dark, leafy background. Other distinguishing characteristics include a white eye ring, oversized eyes, and long, pink legs!
Ovenbirds are forest birds! They’ll only breed where there are large, undisturbed expanses of mature trees with a closed canopy. Even a fairly extensive forest of 250 to 2,000 acres may not be big enough to support an ovenbird population unless there are larger forests nearby. The Manistee National Forest, where I was walking, is the perfect environment for ovenbirds! It is well over 500,000 acres with large expanses of densely packed trees and a thick overhead canopy that ovenbirds love.
The canopy needs to be so dense that it severely inhibits underbrush from developing on the forest floor, and allows for a deep layer of leaf litter to accumulate. Ovenbirds spend most of their time foraging in that leaf litter looking for their favorite foods, like crickets, caterpillars, ants, moths, spiders, earthworms, slugs, and snails—and sometimes small lizards!
Ovenbirds also need leaf litter to build their nests. The female ovenbird first chooses an area under or near a small break in the canopy, and then clears a little circular spot on the forest floor. Over the course of the next five days, she will weave a domed nest with a squat oval side entrance using dead leaves, grasses, stems, bark, and hair (usually from horses and deer). When her nest is complete, the female ovenbird will drop twigs and leaves on top of her creation to keep it hidden. The finished dome-shaped nest, at nine inches wide and five inches deep, resembles a primitive outdoor oven, which is how the ovenbird got its name!
Scientists believe that the biggest threat to the ovenbird population is forest fragmentation. When logging, roads, and human development degrade our forests, ovenbird numbers decline substantially as they lose suitable breeding grounds, and places to forage among the leaf litter. Habitat fragmentation and loss also make the ovenbird more vulnerable to nest predators like snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and blue jays. They also become more susceptible to nest parasites, like the brown-headed cowbird.
When you have the chance to take a walk through a deep, dark forest, you might be surprised by the sounds you hear and the birds you’ll find. If you’re lucky enough to see or hear the ovenbirds, you can rest assured it’s a very healthy ecosystem!