and Drawing by Spike Knuth, Contributing Columnist
Clear, whistled notes emanate from high
in a large sycamore tree along the river. A medium-sized bird appears
suddenly from the thick green foliage into a sunny spot.
Like a burning coal of bright orange, a
male Baltimore oriole reveals himself, uttering his whistling song.
The Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula,
Icterus meaning “yellow” in Greek), is a member of the blackbird family.
The male is basically black above with a black hood, a bright-orange or
yellow-orange breast, belly and rump, with patches of yellow-orange on the
tail, and white wing bars. Females can vary in color, but are usually
olive-brown on the back, with yellow breast and belly, and yellow or
olive-yellow rump. In some cases, the female resembles a duller male in
color with some black on its back and head. Orioles are about 7½ to 8¾
For a while the Baltimore oriole’s
name, and that of the Bullock’s oriole (Icterus bullockii), were changed
to northern oriole. Taxonomists again separated them when it was established
that the Bullock’s was a separate species. The Bullock’s is a western
species, but will interbreed with the Baltimore where their ranges overlap
in the plains region. A color phase of the Baltimore is the orchard oriole
(Icterus spurius),which is burnt orange or chestnut and black in color, is a
bit smaller, and has a similar range, but maybe not as far north as the
The name Baltimore was applied by the
Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who originally named it for the first baron or
lord of Baltimore, George Calvert, whose coat of arms was orange and black.
Other common local names are golden robin, hang-nest, fire bird, and hammock
bird. The orchard oriole is also known as brown oriole or orchard hang-nest.
Orioles tend to show up in early May,
about the time the black locusts are in bloom. They favor deciduous
woodlands, especially tall shade trees like elms, sycamores, cottonwoods,
hackberries, or willows along river banks, country roads, or in towns and
cities. Fruit orchards of apple, peach, and cherry trees are also favorite
habitats. Their song is a loud, clear, low-pitched whistle, in single- or
double-whistled notes, or a chattering alarm note. The male will go through
a courtship ritual of much bowing, wing drooping and tail spreading, plus a
fluttering flight with wings and tail fanned. He will sing constantly for
almost two months during courtship and nesting.
One of the identifying characteristics
of the oriole is the nest the female builds. Anywhere from six to 60 feet
above ground, usually nearer the higher elevation, the female will anchor
and suspend the nest in the fork of a tree at the extreme ends of a branch,
with a foundation of strong, fibrous materials. Then she will expertly weave
plant fibers of many kinds, grasses, and animal hair to create a hanging
basket-like structure forming a pouch of four to six inches deep. After it
ages a bit, it appears gray in color. She may return to the same area each
year and even build in the same tree. The nest is extremely durable and may
last two or three years, although it is rarely if ever used again.
The oriole lays about four to six white
eggs, speckled and scrawled with dark brown and black. While the female is
laying and incubating, the male stays close by and sings constantly. The
young hatch in 12 to 14 days. Both parents feed the young and they fledge in
10 to 12 days. The young follow the parents around begging for food noisily.
The young birds won’t develop adult plumage until the fall of their
second year. Orioles have one brood, and shortly thereafter they begin their
molt, usually going into dense woods or swamps. The females go first, often
leaving the male to finish rearing their growing young.
The diet of the oriole is mostly
insects, especially caterpillars, but including lice, weevils, beetles,
grasshoppers, wasps, spiders, and ants. They also eat some fruits, and can
be attracted to sugar-water feeders or to oranges cut in half and put on
specially made feeders or attached to a tree branch or trunk.
From late August and into early
September, orioles begin meandering southward
toward Mexico, Central America,
Columbia, and Venezuela, although some winter along the South Atlantic and
Gulf coasts. In recent years they’ve wintered as far north as North
The Baltimore oriole is a bird of the
eastern United States, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast, north to
central Alberta and east to New Brunswick.