The Allure of the Ovenbird

Meet the Quirky Ovenbird in the Words of Naturist John Burroughs

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The ovenbird is an inconspicuous ground-nesting warbler that gets its name from its unique looking nest.

The bird’s nest looks like an old-fashioned domed oven.

It’s rather unique and hard to forget.

If you appreciate design and architecture, then credit the female ovenbird for weaving the cup, side entrance and roof of this unique domed nest as a single, integrated piece of artistry.

Ovenbird’s Loud Staccato Song

Nor is the ovenbirds emphatic and distinctive staccato song that sounds like a ringing chant of “teacher, teacher, teacher.”

The ovenbird’s loud, staccato song captured the interest of the poet Robert Frost.

A 1916 poem titled “The Ovenbird” begins: “There is a singer everyone has heard, Loud, a mid-summer and mid-wood bird, Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.”

Ovenbirds frequent shady woods and spend most if their time walking on the forest floor.

ovenbird_on_branch_Intobirds
The ovenbird is an inconspicuous ground-nesting warbler that gets its name from its unique looking nest

Allure of the Ovenbird

Its choice of habitat makes it hard for birders to enjoy observing this bird, which adds to its charm.

I find myself enchanted by this little bird because of its olive-brown back and spotted breast giving it the perfect disguise to go about life undetected.

The bird’s distinctive call.

And its fabulous old-fashion-looking oven nest.

John Burroughs was one of the most famous writers in world
John Burroughs was one of the most famous writers in world

Acclaimed great American naturist, John Burroughs was too enchanted by the ovenbird, capturing the beauty and quickness of this ground-dwelling warbler.

Read on to enjoy ‘The Ovenbird’ from Burroughs’ book, ‘Bird Stories from Burroughs.’

The Ovenbird by John Burroughs

Every loiterer about the woods knows this pretty, speckled-breasted, olive-backed little bird, which walks along over the dry leaves a few yards from him, moving its head as it walks, like a miniature domestic fowl.

Most birds are very stiff-necked, like the robin, and as they run or hop upon the ground, carry the head as if it were riveted to the body.

Not so the ovenbird, or the other birds that walk, as the cow-bunting, or the quail, or the crow.

They move the head forward with the movement of the feet.

ovenbird_in_leaves_intobirds
The ovenbird walks along over dry leaves moving its head like a miniature domestic fowl

Ovenbird’s Lyrical Call

The sharp, reiterated, almost screeching song of the ovenbird, as it perches on a limb a few feet from the ground, like the words “preacher, preacher, preacher, or “teacher, teacher, teacher,” uttered louder and louder, and repeated six or seven times, is also familiar to most ears;

But its wild, ringing, rapturous burst of song in the air high above the tree-tops is not so well known.

From a very prosy, tiresome, unmelodious singer, it is suddenly transformed for a brief moment into a lyric poet of great power.

It is a great surprise. The bird undergoes a complete transformation.

Ordinarily it is a very quiet, demure sort of bird. It walks about over the leaves, moving its head like a little hen; then perches on a limb a few feet from the ground and sends forth its shrill, rather prosy, unmusical chant.

Surely it is an ordinary, commonplace bird.

Flight and Song

But wait till the inspiration of its flight-song is upon it.

What a change!

Up it goes through the branches of the trees, leaping from limb to limb, faster and faster, till it shoots from the tree-tops fifty or more feet into the air above them, and bursts into an ecstasy of song, rapid, ringing, lyrical;

No more like its habitual performance than a match is like a rocket; brief but thrilling; emphatic but musical.

Having reached its climax of flight and song, the bird closes its wings and drops nearly perpendicularly downward like the skylark.

If its song were more prolonged, it would rival the song of that famous bird.

The bird does this many times a day during early June, but oftenest at twilight.

Finding an Ovenbird’s Nest

About the first of June there is a nest in the woods, upon the ground, with four creamy-white eggs in it, spotted with brown or lilac, chiefly about the larger ends, that always gives the walker who is so lucky as to find it a thrill of pleasure.

It is like a ground sparrow’s nest with a roof or canopy to it.

ovenbird_nest_intobirds
The bird’s nest looks like an old-fashioned domed oven.

The little brown or olive backed bird starts away from your feet and runs swiftly and almost silently over the dry leaves and then turns her speckled breast to see if you are following.

She walks very prettily, by far the prettiest pedestrian in the woods.

But if she thinks you have discovered her secret, she feigns lameness and disability of both leg and wing, to decoy you into the pursuit of her.

This is the ovenbird.

Ground-nesting Warbler

The last nest of this bird I found was while in quest of the pink cypripedium.

We suddenly spied a couple of the flowers a few steps from the path along which we were walking, and had stooped to admire them, when out sprang the bird from beside them, doubtless thinking she was the subject of observation instead of the rose-purple flowers that swung but a foot or two above her.

But we never should have seen her had she kept her place.

She had found a rent in the matted carpet of dry leaves and pine needles that covered the ground, and into this had insinuated her nest, the leaves and needles forming a canopy above it, sloping to the south and west, the source of the more frequent summer rains.

Learn more about John Burroughs and his works at the John Burroughs Association at http://www.johnburroughsassociation.org/

If you’re traveling through the beautiful Hudson Valley in New York, be sure to stop and visit John Burroughs’ Slabsides and Nature Sanctuary at Floyd Ackert Road in West Park, NY.

Get directions to Slabsides here.

Comments

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  1. Great post Renee. Great little essay by John Burroughs. Didn’t know about the Ovenbirds’ vertical mating dance/song. Cool. Hear this bird every year at the cottage north of Bobcaygeon, Ontario. Never seen one!

    • Thanks David. I love John Burroughs’ writing and his bird observations are fabulous. I hear more Ovenbirds than I see.

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