May 27, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2020

Eight Oriole Species Brighten Summer Backyards Across the U.S.

A Baltimore oriole enjoys grape jelly from a backyard feeder. Photo by T. Simmons.

I could be forgiven, being a lifelong Baltimorian and a serious baseball fan, for having a special affection for orioles, but I am not alone. For many bird watchers, the return of orioles in the spring is a special moment.

It is not just that orioles are beautiful, the males a palette of rich oranges, yellows, and blacks, or that their song, familiar and resonant, rings across the landscape. It is that no matter where you live in North America, you have a chance of seeing one. Including a few orioles that are confined to the southern border of the United States, eight species regularly occur in North America. Many bird watchers forget that orioles are members of the blackbird family, along with grackles, cowbirds, and meadowlarks. Unlike their cousins, however, orioles are usually found singly or in pairs rather than in flocks. Small groups of orioles may be seen in the fall, but they are exceptions rather than the rule.

Baltimore oriole

In much of the East, from southern Canada to the northern edge of the Gulf States, when bird watchers think oriole, they are talking about Baltimore orioles (birds, not ballplayers). The Baltimore oriole, formerly considered the same species as the Bullock's oriole of the West under the name northern oriole, is a bird of open woods and parklands. Its fondness for areas with scattered tall trees means that it frequently is a backyard nester, to the delight of the homeowner. The long, hanging nests, which may take as long as two weeks to weave, are large enough to be fairly easily found, although they are usually high in trees and at the ends of limbs.

Baltimore oriole photo by Shutterstock

Baltimore orioles eat mostly insects but will take fruits and will also feed on sugar water at nectar feeders. Many backyard bird watchers put out orange, melon, or apple slices or purple grapes for their orioles.

Baltimore oriole populations are considered stable, but many older bird watchers have commented on how much scarcer the birds are now than they were 25 years ago. Some researchers think the populations may be declining because of the loss of large insects.

Bullock's oriole

Bullock's oriole photo by Robert Strickland

The western counterpart is the Bullock's oriole, found from southern Canada to the Mexican border. The Bullock's also favors open woodlands, although it is most often found in cottonwoods rather than in the Baltimore oriole's favored elms. Particularly a bird of stream sides and parks, it is found fairly frequently nesting in yards with scattered trees. It is as fond of fruit and sugar water as the Baltimore oriole and will readily come to feeding stations that supply them.

Orchard oriole

Orchard oriole photo by Tammy Simmons

Although the orchard oriole's range overlaps that of the Baltimore oriole, the orchard oriole is considered a bird of the Midwest and Southeast. It breeds in open areas with deciduous trees and sometimes in yards. In general, the orchard oriole uses areas that have shorter trees than Baltimore orioles prefer and can sometimes be found in shrubby areas with half-grown saplings. Orchard orioles regularly feed on nectar and may use hummingbird feeders. The orchard oriole population may be declining slightly in some areas, but in the past century it has expanded its range north almost to the Canadian border, perhaps as a result of the clearing of native forests. The nest is like the Baltimore oriole's, but it is not as deep. Oddly, orchard orioles can often be found nesting in trees with eastern kingbirds, although the kingbirds will not tolerate a Baltimore oriole nest close to their own.

Hooded oriole

Hooded oriole photo by Shutterstock

In many ways, the western counterpart of the orchard oriole is the hooded oriole. The males of the two are distinctive, but even experts have trouble telling the females apart. Hooded orioles are largely confined to lower elevations in the arid Southwest, favoring yards, parks, and streamsides. Hooded orioles are particularly attracted to palm trees and are one of the most frequent oriole visitors to nectar feeders. They have expanded their range slightly in recent decades, although the range may have declined in Texas because of cowbird parasitism of nests.

Scott's oriole

Scott's oriole photo by Shutterstock

Another Southwestern oriole is the Scott's oriole. It favors dry habitat in foothills and valleys, particularly in areas with yucca, in which it likes to nest. Like the other orioles, it is an insect eater, but it will come to nectar and occasionally to fruit. The Scott's oriole has spread slowly northward in the past few decades.

Spot-breasted oriole

Spot-breasted oriole photo by Shutterstock

The spot-breasted oriole is a species introduced from the tropics that has become established in parts of southeastern Florida, where it takes advantage of the many tall, exotic trees. It eats many flowers and fruits and will take nectar. The population seems stable.

Altamira and Audubon's orioles

Altamira oriole photo by B. Arrigoni

In extreme South Texas, along the lower Rio Grande River, are two other orioles that are part, barely, of the North American avifauna. Altamira and Audubon's orioles are birds of tropical forests and thickets. They are widespread and fairly common in Mexico. Both take fruit as well as insects and will come to feeders.

Audubon's oriole photo by Shutterstock

For those with orioles in their yards, summer is a slightly better time, a little richer experience. Oriole parents are persistent tenders of their young and defenders of the nest, providing plenty of opportunity to study or just to watch. Those who do not have orioles yet and who have at least a few tall trees can try to attract them with fruit slices—oranges and grapes—and a nectar feeder. Many oriole fans put out nectar in cups, which are easier for the orioles to get to than the nectar in hummingbird feeders. Success is not guaranteed, but if it works, adding orioles to your yard is something you will never regret.

About Eirik A.T. Blom

Eirik A.T. "Rick" Blom was one of North America’s leading bird experts and a prolific writer. He contributed to the National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and was a long-time contributing editor for Bird Watcher’s Digest. He died in 2002.

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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021