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Oriole Guide

 


 

Baltimore Orioles like the one in the video above are such a welcome flash of color after a long dreary winter. If you live in the eastern U.S., this may be the oriole you're most familiar with, as these brilliant orange males are certainly eye-catching. North America is breeding territory for eight varieties of orioles, and we'll help you spot the differences below. The most abundant (and most likely to visit your feeders) are the Baltimore Oriole and the Orchard Oriole east of the Rockies, and the Bullock's Oriole from the Great Plains west to the Pacific.

How to Attract Orioles to Your Yard

Our New World orioles are members of the blackbird family, with a name meaning "golden." They are migratory birds who spend the winters in Central and South America (as well as Florida), visiting us northerners for a few precious months every summer. 

Orioles primarily eat insects and berries. They're most often found in the canopy of tall trees where they spend their days gleaning spiders, beetles, and caterpillars from the high branches and leaves. When berries are ripe, orioles seek out the darkest and juiciest of the pickings. Plantings of raspberries, or mulberry, cherry, and crab apple trees in your yard would be seriously appreciated by any oriole! They'll even drink nectar from flowers, just like hummingbirds.

female bullock's oriole

In order to attract orioles to stay for the summer nesting season, it's important to catch their eye on their northward travels. If an oriole doesn't see a good source of food, it's likely to keep migrating until it does. So if you plan to put out feeders, put them out before they are expected to arrive. They'll start arriving anytime between early April and late May, depending on your latitude and the species. An orange colored feeder is a great way to get their attention!

What Can I Feed Orioles?

Orioles love their insects, but can definitely use high-energy sweet foods in the spring while raising young, and autumn when undertaking their long journey south. And if you're interested in seeing these stunning birds up close, you'll probably want to set up a feeder to lure them out of the treetops. 

Some foods loved by orioles include:

  • Orange halves on stakes or in suet cages. They should be replaced frequently in warm weather to prevent harmful mold growth.
  • Grape jelly in small amounts in a shallow dish (to avoid birds getting it in their feathers). Jelly can also be watered down 1:1 to stretch it further. Avoid jelly with added corn syrup. 
  • Live mealworms are a great source of protein during mid-summer, especially for growing fledglings.
  • Nectar made of 1 part white sugar to 4 parts water (same as hummingbird nectar). Orioles will often sip from hummingbird feeders with perches, or similar feeders made especially for orioles.
  • We've even noticed our orioles enjoying suet
Orioles on suet feeder in the rain

Even though orioles are only in town for the summer, that doesn't mean your food offerings will go to waste if they don't visit long. Or if they miss you entirely. Lots of other beautiful birds enjoy the same foods! Oranges and grape jelly are highly regarded by scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, grosbeaks, and jays. Those extra mealworms will be snatched up by bluebirds, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. And that sweet nectar won't last long if you have hummingbirds nearby.

What About Nests?

Orioles don't need any help from us for their nests. They are master weavers that hang long sack-like nests high in the treetops! Their nests are quite hard to spot, as they're usually well-camouflaged by leafy branches. You might be able to spot one high in an elm, cottonwood, or sycamore (their favorite trees) after the leaves have fallen. Our southernmost orioles will hang their nests in palm trees or yuccas as well!


How do I Identify My Orioles?

While orioles share many common traits, such as a diet of insects and berries and nesting behaviors, they can be distinguished by where they're located, their songs, and their markings. We've separated them by region below. For many more pictures and sound clips, we recommend checking out The Cornell Lab's All About Birds website. It's great!

Eastern U.S. Orioles

Baltimore Oriole

Male baltimore oriole
Their clear, beautiful flute-like song is the first sign they've arrived. You'll likely hear them long before you catch a glimpse. (If you think you're hearing a robin that must've had some vocal lessons, that's a Baltimore Oriole). Look high in the treetops when you hear their song and you'll see a flash of brilliant orange on the male. The females have brown wing feathers and yellowish breast and backs that become brighter and more orange with every molt. Baltimore orioles begin migrating from Florida and Central America in early April, to breed throughout the eastern U.S. as far as the plains. They raise a single brood and start heading back between July and September.
male orchard orioleOrchard Oriole

The smallest oriole we have, and also the most subdued in color, these little russet-breasted birds are a bit harder to spot. Their song is similar to a robin's, but more varied and with some chattering interspersed. They also spend much of their time in tree-tops, especially near rivers and streams. Orchard orioles love nectar, and are known pollinators! They arrive in their nesting grounds throughout the eastern U.S. in late May and leave as early as mid-July.

Spot-Breasted Oriole

These orioles are actually non-native, having escaped from captivity near Miami in the mid-1940s. Males and females look identical, with orange cowls, black faces and throats, and black spots on their orange breasts. Found in the U.S. only in the suburbs of central & southern Florida, they can also be identified by their slow, clear, rich & varied whistle.


Western U.S. Orioles

Bullock's Oriole

Widespread through the western states into the Great Plains, Bullock's orioles begin their travels north from Mexico in March, and will return through August and September. They are similar in size and brilliance to Baltimore Orioles, but have orange cheeks with a dramatic black streak across the eye. Males will sing their short whistled chattery song from the treetops while females sing frequently from the ground.

Scott's Oriole

Found throughout the arid southwest, this rich yellow and black oriole is closely associated with yuccas. It forages for insects on yucca plants, eats nectar from yucca flowers, and uses yucca leaves to weave its nest! Both males and females sing frequently, beginning their bubbling melodies before sunrise. Migrates north in March or April, and heads back south in July and August. Small numbers will winter in southern Arizona and California.

Hooded Oriole

The bright yellow-orange Hooded Oriole is a summer resident of the most southwestern edge of the U.S., between Texas and the California coast. It is easily identified by its black throat and mask, while its color ranges from yellow in California to true orange in southern Texas. This shy oriole is often found foraging and nesting in palm trees, though their constant chatter will give them away. Their highly variable song is filled with abrupt warbles, chatters, and even mimics of other birds' sounds!

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

These tropical orioles are year-round residents in the southern tip of Texas, as well as Mexico and Central America. Males and females look alike with bright orange feathers overall, and black mask, throat, wings and tail. Their song is a series of clear whistling phrases.

Audubon's Oriole

These radiant yellow and black orioles are year-round residents found only in the very southern tip of Texas and parts of Mexico. Males and females look alike with a full black head, wings, and tail. They can be hard to spot as they forage in thick shrubs, but their clear slow whistle (sounds like a human trying to find the right note) is easy to pick out.


 

For more detailed information, photos, and sound identification on each species of oriole (as well as others in the blackbird family), we suggest you check out The Cornell Lab's All About Birds website. It's an amazing resource for bird watching! Have any tips of your own? Let us know!

 

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