Jun 13, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2018

Baltimore Oriole: A Backyard Beauty

Baltimore orioles are backyard beauties! Photo by A. Reago & C. McClarren / Wikimedia.
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I've never seen a Baltimore oriole," my friend Mark lamented after reading an article about them in Bird Watcher's Digest.

"Well let's go, then!" I offered. A few days earlier I had seen those beautiful orange and black birds foraging in an historic cemetery along my dog-walking route, roughly halfway between Mark's house and mine. Mark doesn't get around so easily these days, so we set up lawn chairs at an elevated vantage, and within a few minutes, our target flew right in front of our eyes! Mark was thrilled, especially since it took so little effort.

I hear Baltimore orioles in my neighborhood every year, May through June. They haven't yet found the oranges I slice for them, or the grape jelly I've offered in shallow bowls in my yard. I've heard it can take several Mays and Junes, but when they discover a reliable new feeding source, it can "rain" orioles during migration. I hope it will happen this year! Maybe a pair will favor my yard rather than the cemetery down the street for nesting.

A Baltimore oriole enjoys a backyard offering of oranges. Photo by Bill Thompson, III

The bird got its name from the colonial proprietors of Maryland: Lord Baltimore and his family, whose coat of arms contained orange and black. The birds were dubbed orioles because of their resemblance to the European golden oriole—no close relation. New World orioles are in the blackbird family. Baltimore oriole was the first bird that took my breath away. It was the first invisible bird that, once pointed out to me, caused my jaw to drop and burned my eyeballs. It was the bird that gave me a clue that I was overlooking and missing out on spectacular beauty in the natural world.

I was about 15, riding in a van with a bunch of other teens in my church's youth group. I have no idea what small Pennsylvania town we were passing through when our minister pointed to the top of a street-side tree and said "Baltimore oriole!" If our van had been a boat, it would have tipped over: Everyone inside leaned to the passengerside windows. The oriole was orange as fire in the summer-morning sun, a male perched so perfectly it was as though he was presenting himself to us.

From 1983 to 1995, Baltimore and Bullock's orioles were considered one species, called the northern oriole. They hybridize in a narrow zone in the Great Plains where their ranges overlap, but genetic testing shows that not only are the two species distinct, they're not even close cousins.

Adult male Baltimore orioles are the only North American orioles that are yelloworange to bright orange with an entirely black head. Several others have black hoods, including Audubon's, Scott's, and adult male orchard orioles, but none of those come close to the intense orange color of the Baltimore. Other North American orioles are flame orange, but lack the completely black hood.

Not until their second autumn do male Baltimore orioles molt into the bright orange and black-hooded plumage. Year-old males resemble adult females. I was privileged to watch a bright orange male and a yellowish female Baltimore oriole building a nest several years ago. We had a great vantage from a railroad bed that sloped down to a small stream, with lowland woods just beyond. That dangling ball of gray vegetation was just above eye-level, hanging from stems of two inter-branching trees. I had seen oriole nests before, but never during construction. What hard-working birds! Well, what a hard-working female! The male seemed to be adept at supervision. Male Baltimore orioles sometimes bring nest-building material, but not the male I watched.

Adult female Baltimore oriole. Photo by D. Menke / Wikimedia

Appearance

Baltimore orioles are slightly smaller and more slender than American robins. Notice the thin, sharp, silver, gray, or black bill with a wide base. Underparts range from dull yellow to flame orange. Adult male Baltimore orioles have an entirely black head and upper mantle, an orange middle and lower back and rump, and orange shoulder patches. Wings are black with a white wing bar, and the tail has a central black V, bordered on all sides by orange or yellow.

Adult female Baltimore orioles vary in appearance, but generally appear to be a pale version of adult males. With age, however, female Baltimore orioles become brighter and more adult-male looking, although they never develop a completely black head. Back and wings are dull gray, olive, or brown, with two white bars. The tail is uniformly dull orange to brown. The head and nape can be gray, olive or brown, turning darker with each molt.

The species molts once a year, after breeding and before and during southbound migration. The oldest known wild Baltimore oriole was more than 11 years old.

Migration and Wintering

Enjoy them while they're here: Baltimore orioles leave their nesting territories in midto late summer, earlier than many neotropical migrants. They migrate in flocks, primarily at night. Most spend the winter in Cuba and other Caribbean Islands, and from southern Mexico to northern South America. Most apparently take a land route to Central America, but some fly over the Gulf of Mexico—certainly those headed to Caribbean destinations. Some spend the winter in the Southeast, and every winter, a few are reported from Louisiana to Nova Scotia. In the spring, most arrive at the Gulf Coast in April, and begin their northward trek in April and early May. They breed east of the Rocky Mountains, from northeastern British Columbia across southern Canada to the Great Lakes, north into New Brunswick, and south nearly to the Gulf of Mexico.

Song

The song of the Baltimore oriole is melodious and flutelike in tone, but usually a short series of notes, often repeated a few times, and often interrupted by pauses. The song can be mimicked by whistling, but isn't amenable to transliteration—that is, there's no who cooks for you, who cooks for you alllll (barred owl), or Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody (white-throated sparrow) for Baltimore orioles. Males often sing from high, open perches in their territories. Female Baltimore orioles sing, too, often while foraging, but a simpler song. Pairs are said to sing duets! An alarm call that can be transliterated as chuck is often repeated when humans or predators are nearby.

A Baltimore oriole visits a backyard jelly feeder. Photo by Laura Hathcock.

Diet

In nature, Baltimore orioles prefer dark fruit, such as mulberries and black cherries, to pale-when-ripe fruit. Especially during breeding season, they devour caterpillars—even hairy ones that many other bird species avoid, insects, and spiders. They forage by gleaning from leaves and branches, and pick insects from spider webs. They are an important predator of tent caterpillars. They also sip nectar from flowers and hummingbird feeders. Commercial oriole feeders have bigger, sturdier perches and larger ports than nectar feeders intended for hummingbirds, and orioles willingly accept less-sweet solution than hummingbirds. A ratio of five or six parts water to one part sugar is fine for orioles. They are also attracted to dark jelly, mealworms, grapes, bananas, and apple slices.

Because insects are an important part of their diet, avoid using pesticides. Poisons that target larva, grubs, and other components of the oriole's diet not only removes a food source, but may harm the birds, as well—especially nestlings.

Plant berry-bearing shrubs and trees to provide a natural food source for orioles in your yard. Favorites include mulberries, raspberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elderberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. Nectar-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds, such as petunias, trumpet creeper, native honeysuckle, and bleeding hearts, also attract orioles.

Baltimore oriole nest. Photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia.

Courtship and Nesting

Baltimore orioles are socially monogamous—both parents care for the young—but extrapair copulation is common. Males return to nesting areas first; females follow a few days later. Females pick the nest site, and construction usually takes about a week. The pendulous nest is built in three phases: an outer bowl-shaped support structure is built first of plant material, animal fur (especially horsehair), or human-made fibers such as string; then, flexible fibers, such as from grapevine or Spanish moss, are woven into an inner bowl; and finally, downy fibers, including milkweed seed plumes and feathers, are used to line the nest. Baltimore orioles rarely reuse nests, but regularly reuse materials from previous years' nests.

Clutch size is usually four or five eggs, but can be as large as seven. Incubation, by the female only, lasts from eleven days to two weeks. Sometimes the male brings food to his mate. Hatching is usually synchronous, but can occur over two or three days. Both parents feed the young—for the first few days by regurgitation, and then by bringing caterpillars, insects, and spiders. Before fledging, the young sometimes cling to the outside of the nest or perch on nearby branches. Fledging occurs eleven days to two weeks after hatching, by which time the young are fully feathered but have a stubby tail and wings. Fledglings are able to fly only short distances for the first few days. Parents feed the young for up to two weeks. Females leave their brood first, leaving the males to feed the young for a few more days.

If nesting successfully results in fledged young, Baltimore orioles do not attempt a second brood. If the first nest fails early, however, they may try again.



About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • Hahaha, I love the ending remark "that area will have already been well -fertilized!"I've noticed that there are more cheep cheeps right after I clean the bird feeder compared to how many there are right before it was cleaned...so cheep cheeps do like and appreciate a well maintained feeder and they are worth the effort. : )
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018
  • The storm saying seems true so far. We had as party at our bird feeder right before our last storm... 6 at once but different cheeps cheeps would come and go so there were more than 6 for sure..and squirrels eating with the birds
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 13 Jul 2018
  • I know and do clean my feeders both for seed and for hummingbird liquid. I have a vase full of different size brushes that are only for this purpose. I have friends however who NEVER clean their feeders or bird baths, and it’s gross! I am ringing this article and will have to give out to the few offenders I know. I can’t imagine looking at such mess and not cleaning it, but not everyone thinks resale. Part of responsible bird watching/loving is to make the time and take the effort to do this.
    by Carol, Tue, 10 Jul 2018