Orchard Orioles and Eastern Kingbirds: Nesting Neighbors

This week I have watched a pair of Eastern Kingbirds and a pair of Orchard Orioles builiding nests high in the same Eastern Cottonwood tree. What makes this observation noteworthy is that this is not happenstance. These two unrelated species have often chosen to be nesting neighbors.

It was just one year ago, in 2019, that a few of us had the first opportunity to watch this behavior in Eliza Howell Park. At that time, they nested in a smaller American Sycamore tree, which had not yet fully leafed out, making observation relatively easy. The pictures here are from last year. (The nest positions in the cottonwood this year are very difficult to see.)

20200603_183203(Photo by Kevin Murphy)

Construction began on the Orchard Oriole nest first (at least as I observed the sequence; I noticed their nest a few days before the Kingbird nest). Though the male is pictured here, the female Oriole does most of  the nest making, weaving the grasses to make the suspended pouch.

Eastern Kingbirds built their nest only a few feet in from the Oriole nest, and just slightly higher.

20200603_181725(Photo by Margaret Weber)

Kingbirds are considerably larger than Orchard Orioles and the nest, built mostly of twigs, plant stems, and bark, is about twice the size of the Oriole nest.

Kingbirds are very active defenders of their nests against Brown-headed Cowbirds (who lays eggs in the nests of other species for hatching and raising) and against predators. A common hypothesis is that Orchard Orioles choose to be close to Kingbirds to benefit from the Kingbirds’ strong protection.

From what I could see last year, it did appear that both species were successful in hatching and fledging their Sycamore broods.

20200603_183334(Photo by Kevin Murphy)

Another interesting aspect of Orchard Oriole nesting is that unattached males sometimes assist in caring for the young. The bird bringing food to the newly hatched in this picture appears to be a year old male that is transitioning from the first year yellow to the adult red.


(Photo by Margaret Weber)

The Kingbird eggs hathed slightly later.

I wonder whether the relationship between these two species is one-sided (the smaller Orioles choosing to live under the protective umbrella of the larger Kingbirds). There have been some fascinating studies in recent years of bird behavior, leading to a recognition of more complex behavior  and more cooperative relationships than we had previously thought.

I highly recommend Jennifer Ackerman’s new book to those interested in bird behavior.


It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Kingbirds are as interested in being neighbors as the Orioles are. Perhaps some ornithologist will soon do a serious and extensive study and provide additional insight.

Meanwhile, I will observe what I can and, no doubt, continue being impressed by the behavior of these two and other species

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