Well-known ornithologists touch down in Birdland

Authors devote book to Baltimore oriole

May 15, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Nationally renowned ornithologists Don and Lillian Stokes had just finished regaling a crowd of Marylanders about the beauty and wonder of the Baltimore oriole, when a spectator's voice thundered out with a sentiment many have been feeling.

"Bring us some Orioles who can pitch," barked Morton Fisher, a Rockland resident and bird-watcher who went to the Baltimore Zoo yesterday for the Stokeses' chat about Maryland's favorite bird. Fisher is as much a Baltimore baseball fan as he is a Baltimore bird fan -- as painful as that is now amid the Orioles' slump.

After the laughs died down, Don Stokes, wearing an Orioles team baseball cap, said the state's love for orioles -- whether they're flying high or not -- is a great ecological boost for Icterus galbula. Or Baltimore oriole, as we know it.

"A great way to bring these miraculous birds to people is through the team," said Don Stokes, who with his wife has written 23 books on birds and nature, the most recent being "The Oriole Book."

"We think there could be a lot more fun interplay between the team and the bird," he said, noting that he and his wife are making a standing offer to the Orioles baseball team to hear their oriole presentation. "It would be great for the players to learn about their mascot."

"They're a bird-friendly team," said Lillian Stokes. "I think they'd like it. Maybe we could even show it at the ballpark on the giant screen."

The Stokeses, dubbed on television "America's First Couple of Birding," have been gaining popularity across the country because of their books and 13-part Public Broadcasting series, "Stokes' Birds at Home." They appear on the folksy show with Daisy, their Pembroke Welsh corgi dog.

The couple met through their mutual love of bird-watching. He was a nature writer and she a hawk watcher when they met at a bird behavior class Don Stokes was teaching at the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

They live in Massachusetts and Florida, but were in the Baltimore area for the past two days to sign books and tell Marylanders about orioles as part of the little-known International Migratory Bird Day. The event is sponsored by Partners in Flight, a coalition of government agencies, companies and bird clubs whose mission is to protect migratory birds.

Their show attracted about 40 bird lovers yesterday who watched the Stokeses' chatty presentation, which included explanations of oriole migration patterns and how the birds' world-famous nests are woven from milkweed fibers.

"They are just amazing suspended nests," Don Stokes said, as he held one of the silvery, cylindrical creations in his hand. "It's a woven masterpiece."

The oriole has long been one of America's favorite backyard birds. Its distinct black and orange colors and vibrant singing are typically its most talked-about features, as well as its remarkable range of migration. The birds fly 500 miles south for the winter to live nine months of the year in Central America and northern South America.

"You begin to realize what a wonderful symbol orioles are for the rhythms of life on the American continents," the Stokeses wrote in "The Oriole Book." "Their whistled spring songs that ring out from the treetops and their endearing habit of choosing our backyards as their summer homes all make them a special bird that is close to our hearts."

The book gives readers advice on how orioles are attracted to backyard bird feeders, how they build nests, what their typical day is like, and how they got their name.

Their colors were the same as those of Lord Baltimore, who ruled the colony of Maryland in the 17th century. Because of that, Mark Catesby, an early ornithologist, named the species the Baltimore bird. Its name was changed to the Baltimore oriole years later because of its similarity to the European golden oriole.

Among those at the zoo yesterday was Grant Healey, who runs the Wild Birds Unlimited store in White Marsh. The Stokeses spoke at his store Saturday and were well-received, he said.

"People have quite a fascination with birds. Even in our speech, we focus on them with so many sayings, like `An early bird gets the worm,' or `Birds of a feather flock together,' " Healey said. "I think it's natural that we focus on them. No matter where you go, there's a bird around."

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