Feathered Friends

Baltimore Oriole

Story 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 inches.

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 Baltimore.

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 Carolina.

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.


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