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Ovenbird

Seiurus aurocapilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: PARULIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Ovenbird's rapid-fire teacher-teacher-teacher song rings out in summer hardwood forests from the Mid-Atlantic states to northeastern British Columbia. It’s so loud that it may come as a surprise to find this inconspicuous warbler strutting like a tiny chicken across the dim forest floor. Its olive-brown back and spotted breast are excellent disguise as it gleans invertebrates from the leaf litter. Its nest, a leaf-covered dome resembling an old-fashioned outdoor oven, gives the Ovenbird its name.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3–5.5 in
11–14 cm
Wingspan
7.5–10.2 in
19–26 cm
Weight
0.6–1 oz
16–28 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Yellow Warbler; smaller than an Eastern Bluebird.
Other Names
  • Paruline couronnée (French)
  • Pizpita dorada, Señorita del monte, Verdín suelero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • On its breeding ground, the Ovenbird divides up the forest environment with the other warblers of the forest floor. The Ovenbird uses the uplands and moderately sloped areas, the Worm-eating Warbler uses the steep slopes, and the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Kentucky Warbler use the low-lying areas.
  • The Ovenbird gets its name from its covered nest. The dome and side entrance make it resemble a Dutch oven.
  • The Ovenbird female weaves the cup, side entrance, and roof of her domed nest from the inside as a single, integrated piece. Then she drops leaves and twigs on top to hide it. If the chicks inadvertently dismantle the dome as they grow, the female ignores the damage.
  • The Ovenbird’s very loud song has attracted attention for years. Robert Frost's 1916 poem "The Oven Bird" begins, "There is a singer everyone has heard, / Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird, / Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again."
  • The Ovenbird chants 4 to 6 of its song's tea-cher phrases per second. Each tea-cher is made up of 3 to 5 separate notes. The number of notes in each part of the phrase and how they're sung are highly variable from individual to individual. Our ears have trouble distinguishing all of the notes, but Ovenbirds recognize each other's songs as unique calling cards.
  • Neighboring male Ovenbirds sing together. One male starts singing, and the second will join in immediately after. They pause, and then sing one after the other again, for up to 40 songs. The second joins in so quickly that they may sound from a distance as if only one bird is singing. Ovenbirds rarely overlap the song of their neighbors.
  • The Ovenbird's abundance, wide distribution, and relative ease of observation have made it a model songbird in scientific studies for nearly a century. Ovenbird studies have helped scientists understand the effects of logging and habitat fragmentation on migrating songbirds.
  • The oldest known Ovenbird was banded in its hatching year and captured and released when it was 11 years old.

Habitat


Forest

Ovenbirds breed in large, mature broadleaf or mixed forests from the Mid-Atlantic states to northeastern British Columbia. They set up summer territories where the leaf canopy overhead inhibits underbrush and provides deep leaf litter hosting plenty of invertebrates. Extensive, uninterrupted forests with relatively closed canopies 50 to 70 feet above the ground seem ideal. Even fairly large forest patches of 250 to 2,000 acres may not be able to support Ovenbird populations unless larger forests are close by. Ovenbirds are less picky about their winter habitats. They avoid open fields and cultivated areas, but where mature forests are unavailable, they can live and feed among shade coffee trees or mangroves, on dry scrubland or regenerating agricultural land, and in moist upland or dry lowland forests. They still favor leaf litter for hunting invertebrates, but they can forage in grasses or on rocks or mud near water.

Food


Insects

Ovenbirds eat mainly forest insects and other invertebrates: a range of adult beetles and larvae, ants, caterpillars, flies, and other insects. Most of these are hunted in leaf litter, some on leaves, and a few on bark or in the air. Parents feed ground beetles and larvae to nestlings. Ovenbirds can alter their feeding habits to forage in trees and shrubs in response to a novel food source, like an outbreak of spruce budworms. In winter habitats, Ovenbirds' food flexibility matches their habitat flexibility. They may add seeds to their diets and specialize in locally abundant prey like ants. They may also hunt insects and grubs in short grasslands or on rocks and mud near water.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.9–2.2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
11–14 days
Nestling Period
7–10 days
Egg Description
White with reddish-brown spots and speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in dark gray to pale brown down, with eyes closed but mouths opening in response to noise.
Nest Description

The female clears a circular spot in forest floor litter and over the next 5 days weaves a domed nest of dead leaves, grasses, stems, bark, and hair. The nest’s squat oval side entrance is hidden from above and generally faces downhill if the nest is built on a slope. The inner cup is just 3 inches across and 2 inches deep, lined with deer or horse hair. The outer dome, camouflaged with leaves and small sticks, may be up to 9 inches across and 5 inches high. Its resemblance to an outdoor bread oven with a side opening gives the Ovenbird its name.

Nest Placement

Ground

The female Ovenbird builds a nest in thick leaf litter on the open forest floor at least 60 or 70 feet from the forest edge. She chooses a spot under or near a small break in the canopy, often near where a tree has fallen or near regrowth from some other disturbance

Ovenbird Nest Image 1
© 2004 Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Behavior


Ground Forager

Male Ovenbirds establish late-spring territories in vigorous, prolonged encounters with other males. They vocalize loudly and chase competitors, but rarely make physical contact. Males defend established territories primarily by singing from perches in the low canopy. A pair bond between a male and female starts on the breeding ground and ends when the young fledge. Only the female sits on the eggs and broods the chicks, but both male and female feed them. They walk through forest floor leaf litter, gleaning and probing for invertebrate food. When predators approach a territory, both males and females may utter alarm calls and give chase. If a predator approaches a female on the nest, she sits tight until the last moment, then tries to lead the predator away by feigning injury. By day 8, the chicks leave the nest one at a time, with several hours between the first and last. As they run and hop away from the nest, the parents split the brood. The male keeps his young within the territory, and the female leads hers to an adjacent area. Females feeding young in neighboring territories are not harassed. The chicks need several more days to begin to fly, and don't become independent until around day 30. Immature Ovenbirds spend time feeding and "playfully chasing" other immature birds, who may or may not be from the same brood. They remain on the breeding grounds until after adult males and females have started their separate migrations in the fall, then they too set off. Ovenbirds seem largely solitary on the winter grounds.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Ovenbirds are numerous and their populations have been stable or slightly increasing overall, despite some declines in the central U.S., according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 22 million with 66 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 48 percent in Mexico, and 66 percent breeding in Canada. They rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Ovenbirds are sensitive to forest fragmentation and to disruption by industrial noise, forest road-building, and logging. Their ability to establish territories and breed successfully depends on the continued existence of large, undisturbed mature broadleaf and mixed forests. When Dutch elm disease spread through Minnesota forests, dying trees let more light filter to the forest floor and increased vegetation there; Ovenbird numbers declined. Forest fragmentation also increases Ovenbirds’ vulnerability to nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Ovenbirds do not recognize cowbirds or their eggs as intruders. Ovenbird eggs are eaten by snakes, Blue Jays, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Red squirrels, eastern gray squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and weasels all take Ovenbird eggs and young. At least one study points to chipmunks as prime predators of the young. Barred Owls and Broad-winged Hawks prey on young and adult Ovenbirds alike. Ovenbirds migrate with storm fronts on their spring and fall migration routes. Large numbers are sometimes killed as they collide with towers and tall buildings along the paths of these fronts.

Credits

Range Map Help

Ovenbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Ovenbirds breeding east of the Appalachians overwinter in Florida and the Caribbean, while those breeding further west fly to Mexico and Central America.

Find This Bird

Male Ovenbirds spend much of the summer singing a very loud, ringing ‘tea-Cher, tea-Cher, tea-CHER, Tea-CHER, TEA-CHER’ that makes these birds pretty easy to locate (although it can take some patience to actually get them in view). Look for Ovenbirds in closed-canopy forests, the larger the better. As you carefully track down the source of the song, watch both in areas of open ground on the forest floor and on low branches up to as high as the lower canopy. When they’re foraging, Ovenbirds are usually on the ground and are not overly shy. With care, you can often watch them meandering about looking for food on the ground.

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Beyond the Empty Nest, Autumn 2011 Living Bird magazine.

Mercury Rising: Spring 2013 Living Bird magazine.