Hooded Orioles are not supposed to be in Beeville. In fact, I could find no official record of breeding Hooded Orioles in this area. The closest record was for Corpus Christi.
But when Johnny Orchard, retired veterinarian and Beeville native, looked out into his yard, he knew he was not seeing one of the regular orioles we have around here. He called his friend, Jimmy Jackson, and told him he had a pair of Hooded Orioles nesting in his palm tree. Disbelieving, Jimmy had to see for himself. Sure enough, they were Hooded Orioles!
Sixty years ago, Hooded Orioles could only be found in the Rio Grande Valley. Their range extended from deep South Texas, westward along the Rio Grande and on into Arizona and California. In Texas, you just didn’t see them further than 80 miles from the Rio Grande.
That all changed for the worse during the winter of 1950-1951. A cold spell swept through in early December, damaging many citrus trees. Then the weather was warm for weeks. The citrus groves leafed out again. This was worse than prolonged cold. On Jan. 29, 1951, a second and severe freeze killed 75% of the Valley’s citrus trees. Native tropical plants and animals suffered similar losses.
Valley farmers were reluctant to replant citrus. Instead they turned to an annual crop: cotton. A crop could be harvested every year, including the first one. If drought occurred, there was water from the Rio Grande.
Of course, there was that pesky bug, the boll weevil. But new and powerful pesticides were becoming available. Cotton farmers took advantage of these and the insect problem seemed solved.
Unfortunately, the pesticides were detrimental to lots of wildlife in the Valley, especially those birds like the Hooded Oriole that depended on insects for food. Many bird species, whose numbers were already decimated by the freeze, now began to starve. And without riparian woodlands (plowed under for cotton) many species lacked crucial nesting habitat. Survivors moved into marginal habitat and tried to carry on.
To make matters worse, all the leftover cotton vegetation and cottonseed meal were turned into cattle feed. This led to feedlots where thousands of head of cattle could be fattened. Feedlots attract cowbirds. Cowbirds are nest parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The poor, targeted species became unwitting foster parents for more cowbirds. Most of their own young did not make it.
Life was hard for Hooded Orioles.
By the 1970s, Hooded Orioles were rare in the Valley. Some must have moved upriver along the Rio Grande. A few dispersed northward and settled on the King Ranch and in the occasional suburb. One of the more remarkable sightings was of a breeding pair feeding young in Bell County, in central Texas, in 1961. That pair was discovered by our own Beeville birder, Mrs. Velma Geiselbrecht. Her birding buddy, Mrs. Jo Adkins, told me recently that she regrettably missed out on that adventure.
That Bell County record was one of the northernmost for Hooded Orioles. But it was the beginning of a trend. Other previously tropical birds were showing up far north of the Rio Grande Valley. Green Jays, formerly restricted to the Valley, are now regular residents of Beeville. Similarly, Great Kiskadees have expanded their range to our area.
More than 70 species of birds have extended their ranges northward (and eastward) in the last five or six decades. This is considered quite rapid. Many scientists see these range changes as evidence for climate change.
Today, although not nearly as common as they once were, Hooded Orioles can be seen again in the Valley. However, their range now extends over most of South Texas. They prefer residential areas, particularly areas planted with Mexican fan palms. Since these kinds of palms are planted in yards all over South Texas, records of nesting Hooded Orioles turn up in Corpus Christi, Pleasanton, George West, and recently in Beeville.
This summer, for the third year in a row, Johnny Orchard has had Hooded Orioles nesting in his Mexican fan palm. The nest was a beautifully constructed hanging basket woven into the underside of a palm frond. Protected from the rain and the hot sun, the oriole nestlings rocked gently in the breeze. All was well.
Or maybe not. The nestlings in the oriole’s nest may have been Bronzed Cowbirds, not the orioles’ own young.
Life is hard. And then sometimes it seems to become even harder. Who knows what will become of Hooded Orioles?