This rare enigmatic bird is hard to spot

Updated: July 11, 2019

ovenbird-perched-on-branch Photo by Ray Hennessy/Shutterstock

Rising from deep within the shade of mature broadleaf forests, a burst of rapid-fire birdsong builds to a ringing crescendo: “tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher!” The penetrating call is probably the most performed of any warbler song across Canada east of the Rockies. Yet you will rarely see its sparrow-sized author, the enigmatic ovenbird.

Arriving first in mid-May—from Central America and the Caribbean—male ovenbirds tirelessly counter sing back and forth in the canopy to claim the best real estate. Indeed, the plump warblers actually spend most of their time strolling along the ground, gleaning beetles, caterpillars, and ants from thick leaf litter beds, against which their drab, olive-brown feathers are imperceptible.

Female ovenbirds appear a week or two after the songsters and quickly pair up with a mate. Over five or so days, they weave dead leaves around stems and twigs to create a domed nest, about the size of a kettle but resembling an old-fashioned outdoor bread oven, on the open forest floor. Their hidden clutches of four or five eggs usually hatch in June.

Because ground nests are so vulnerable—in some forests more than half are ravaged by predators—the young vacate as soon as they can walk (six to 10 days later), and are divided between their parents. Fathers keep feeding their portion of the brood within the nesting territory for two or three weeks, while mothers and their charges trek farther afield.

Though Canada hosts more than 10 million ovenbirds, they’re diminished in southern areas where smaller woodlots have less leaf litter and more forest edge nest raiders, such as chipmunks and brown-headed cowbirds. Climate change is also forecast to push the warbler’s range north, beyond much of cottage country, over the next 60 years.

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