The ovenbird is plump and large for a warbler, though smaller than many sparrows. It walks jerkily, not hops, on the ground, usually with its tail cocked up. Adult upper parts are dark olive brown with an orange crown. There are two dark border stripes along the orange crown and a bold white eye ring. Underparts are white, with heavily streaked breast and sides; the streaking is made up of a series of connecting spots. The legs are pink. The song is a loud, ringing series of two-syllable phrases: "TEACHer-TEACHer-TEACHer-TEACHer," with each phrase being progressively louder. They often sing in midsummer, even on the hottest afternoons. Males have a warbling flight song made during courtship flights. The call is a loud chip.
Similar species: Waterthrushes (northern and Louisiana) are close relatives. Both of them are darker above (not olive) and have bold white eyebrows (which the ovenbird lacks); also, they lack the ovenbird's rufous crown stripe and white eye rings. Waterthrushes habitually bob or wag their tails, while the ovenbird usually walks on the ground with its tail cocked up. Several sparrows have streaky breasts, but their conical bill shape gives them away. Some of the thrushes, such as wood thrush, might be confused with ovenbirds, for the spotted breast and habit of walking on the ground, but they are larger and have more robin-like bills; remember that the ovenbird is a warbler.
Length: 6 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Statewide, though rarely seen in the Bootheel.
Habitat and Conservation
Ovenbirds are associated with true forests, which have closed canopies. They spend a lot of time on the ground as they forage among leaf litter for insects and other small invertebrates. During migration, they're commonly seen in large forested regions in Missouri, especially in southern Missouri. To locate an ovenbird, first learn to recognize its call, then go to likely habitat and listen. Use binoculars. The bird, most likely, will be on the ground or on lower branches. You will be impressed that such a loud song comes from such a small bird.
Ovenbirds feed on the forest floor, turning over dried fallen leaves with their bills, searching for snails, worms, insects, and spiders.
Common migrant. Uncommon summer resident in the south; rare summer resident in the north. The ovenbird's closest relatives within the wood-warbler family are the waterthrushes; they are in the same genus. But waterthrushes, as their name suggests, spend most of their time near water, while the ovenbird is found in large, closed-canopy forests and is not so closely associated with water.
Ovenbirds start arriving in Missouri in mid-April; in fall, they all depart by mid-October. Their wintering grounds range from Mexico to northern South America and the West Indies. Nests are build on a cleared spot amid dense leaf litter on the forest floor and are woven of grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, and other fibers. The domed nest has a roof, onto which the female drops miscellaneous leaves and sticks for camouflage; the entrance is at the side of the dome, making it resemble a tiny rustic outdoor oven (hence the ovenbird's common name). A clutch comprises 3–6 eggs, which are incubated 11–14 days; after hatching, the young remain in the nest less than 2 weeks before venturing out. There can be 2 broods. An ovenbird can live to be at least 11 years old.
Thoreau was a master naturalist, but he seemed unable to realize that the warbling, lyrical evening flight song was made by the same bird that sang the familiar "teacher, teacher." He knew the ovenbird sang the latter, but the singer of the former he called a "night-warbler." Nearly a century later, as World War I was beginning, Robert Frost's sonnet "The Oven Bird" used the bird's post-springtime, less-than-lyrical chanting as a metaphor for the job of a poet in diminished, un-beautiful, troubling times.
Ovenbirds require large tracts of mature, closed-canopy forest; when logging, roads, and human development degrade those forests, ovenbirds decline from decreased habitat. Another reason forest fragmentation causes ovenbird populations to decline is that it widens their exposure to cowbirds, nest parasites that hamper their ability to successfully raise chicks. Many animals eat ovenbird eggs, young, and adults.