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Dartmouth family helps Baltimore oriole survive N.S. winter with food and warmth

Apricot the Baltimore oriole feasts on orange slices. He was first spotted in the Barss family's Dartmouth, N.S., backyard in November 2023. (Emma Barss/Facebook - image credit)
Apricot the Baltimore oriole feasts on orange slices. He was first spotted in the Barss family's Dartmouth, N.S., backyard in November 2023. (Emma Barss/Facebook - image credit)

A Dartmouth family is helping make a Baltimore oriole's winter in Nova Scotia a little more bearable.

Emma Barss and her family first noticed the bright orange and black bird, which she has named Apricot, at their bird feeder in mid-November. While it's not unusual to see this kind of bird in Nova Scotia during the warmer months, it's rare after the weather turns colder.

"I have been birding quite seriously over the last year, so I am familiar with the birds that are frequent here in Nova Scotia and I was aware that the oriole was a unique sight," Barss told CBC's Mainstreet Halifax in an interview on Monday.

"So we started watching him closely and just getting excited about him for the first few days and it was another week into November that we realized he was probably sticking around and didn't have much hope of getting down to the Caribbean in time for winter."

Barss, who has been documenting Apricot's winter in Nova Scotia on social media, said she's heard of a few other Baltimore orioles hanging around Nova Scotia this year. She said she's not sure where Apricot spends his time when he's not by the house, but he is eating there.

At first, Barss said she and her family was concerned about Apricot being in Nova Scotia over the winter. But after speaking with a few other people in the birding community, she decided to help him make his time here more comfortable.

A 'bossy boy'

"Orioles don't need the similar food that our chickadees and blue jays are eating. They eat grape jelly and other sweet, fruity tasting things like orange slices and grapes," Barss said.

"And because they're not supposed to be here in the winter, they need a lot of extra fat and protein to help keep them warm. So he has some peanut butter suet that he's eating a lot of and sometimes he'll eat meal worms."

Barss said she and her family also built a shelter for Apricot's food to keep it dry. They also bought a poultry warming mat so that he has a spot to sit on cold days.

Emma Barrs and her family built a shelter for Apricot, a Baltimore oriole that's spending winter in Nova Scotia this year. There's a poultry warming pad the shelter that will help keep him warm.
Emma Barrs and her family built a shelter for Apricot, a Baltimore oriole that's spending winter in Nova Scotia this year. There's a poultry warming pad the shelter that will help keep him warm.

Emma Barss and her family built a shelter for Apricot, a Baltimore oriole that's spending winter in Nova Scotia this year. The orange and black bird is seen huddling in the far left corner on a poultry warming pad she added to keep him warm. (Emma Barss/Facebook)

"And he does sit on it quite a bit, especially when it's cold and stormy but he doesn't stay there for hours, but he'll stay on that pad for 20 minutes or so," Barss said.

But other birds are now starting to show up and raid Apricot's supplies. Barss said starlings have been eating his food and sitting on his heating pad. Luckily, Barss said some caging over the shelter helped keep the starlings out.

Apricot is naturally shy of humans and flies away if they open their door, she said. But he is kind of a "bossy boy" to the other birds.

At least 8 Baltimore orioles sightings this winter

"He does tell the starlings off, once he was telling grackles off in November, he got them away from his food and blue jays — he has no time for blue jays," she said. "So despite being kind of small and on his own, he does stick up for himself when he needs to."

The Nova Scotia Bird Society told CBC News in an interview Tuesday evening that there have been at least eight reports of Baltimore orioles in the province this winter.

"There's certainly range expansion happening with some birds. For example, 30 years ago in Nova Scotia, cardinals weren't very common. Now cardinals are all over the place. With the effects of climate change, bird range is changing," said Tony Millard, the president of the society.

Millard said in the case of the Baltimore oriole, it could just have "faulty GPS."

"The term is reverse migration when they fly the wrong way. It could have been brought up here by a weather front and dumped here and thinks, 'What the heck am I doing here?' and doesn't really know how to get back home again. Will it survive the winter? It may," Millard said.

Millard said he knows of people who have helped birds like this survive the winter, much like the Barss family is doing now with Apricot.

'He would definitely be welcome back'

"It's quite amazing what they can get through," Millard said.

Barss said she is concerned about what happens in the spring. She said her family usually takes down all their bird feeders in the spring because that's when diseases are more likely to spread between birds.

"I'm hoping when we take down his shelter in May or so he decides to go back to berries and fruits and bugs in the wild to eat  because they'll be more plentiful," she said

"And hopefully he finds a lady Baltimore oriole and they go on an adventure wherever they please. But he definitely would be welcome back in the winter. But I don't want to mess with nature and keep him here if he should be elsewhere."

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