Cottonwood Trees: The Fan Club

As I was thinking about the cottonwood trees in Eliza Howell Park recently, I recalled the old song, “Don’t Fence me In,” sung by “cowboys” like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. It includes these lyrics:

     “Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze; Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees”

I don’t know if the cottonwood leaves actually murmur, but they definitely get my attention at this time of the year.

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There are dozens of large Eastern Cottonwoods in the park, many of them quite close to the park road. One that stands alone next to the road is a favorite.

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The Baltimore Orioles that spend three months of the year in the park are also fans of the cottonwoods. Of the 44 Baltimore Oriole nests that I have found in the park in the last 8 years, 24 have been in cottonwoods. The others have been scattered among 5 other tree species, with no other species having more than 7.

In 2019 the preference for cottonwoods is even more evident: 8 nests found; 7 in cottonwoods.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

Cottonwoods are dioecious, separate female and male trees. This is the first year I have made note of the sex of the cottonwoods selected by the Baltimore Orioles for nests. 5 of the 7 are female trees. Without additional records, of course, I don’t know if this is typical.

The sex difference is easiest to notice in the spring, when the male trees have reddish flowers (catkins), which appear earlier than female catkins.

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The catkins on the female trees are green and the seed capsules are, at the beginning of June, getting ready to split open to release the seeds attached to the “cotton.” The cotton will soon be flying.

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The orioles are fans of the hanging branches in which to build and hide their hanging nests. I have become a cottonwood fan partly because of the orioles, but I also simply admire the trees:

– the shaking leaves with the sky as background

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– standing tall and leafless in January.

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I am proud to be a member of the Eliza Howell Cottonwoods fan club.

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