Baltimore & Orchard Oriole
One of the most notable avian events of May, a month with no shortage of such events, is the return of our two species of oriole from their Mexican and Central American wintering grounds. The arrival of such tropical-looking birds has always seemed to me an assurance that, at long last, spring has finally gotten its act together, and that warm weather is here to stay.
Even many casual observers of nature are familiar with the species whose flame-colored plumage led Emily Dickinson to call it “the meteor of birds”: the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). This species is not only a spectacular sight, but, happily, a common one in our area in summer. Breeding Baltimore Orioles can be found in many different semi-open habitats containing deciduous trees, including suburban yards and parks. Their distinctive hanging nests are often easily found, usually suspended from some downward-angled tree branch.
The adult male’s orange under parts, tail edges, and upper tail coverts, coupled with a black head, back, center of tail, and wings (with white wing bars) render him unmistakable. The female is a drabber version of the male (which still leaves her a strikingly plumaged bird), with a mottled brownish color replacing the male’s black on the head, and a duller orangey-yellow color instead of the male’s bright orange on the under parts.
Less well known is the Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius). This smaller, slimmer species, not nearly as brightly colored as our more common oriole, has an extraordinary, though subtler, beauty of its own. The adult male is almost identical in pattern to an adult male Baltimore, but the under parts are a rich, dark chestnut, and the tail is entirely black. The female is mostly a greenish yellow, with a light gray back and dark gray wings with white wing bars.
Orchard Orioles are found in habitats similar to those occupied by Baltimores, but besides being much more sparsely distributed, seem to be especially fond of locations near bodies of water such as streams and lakes. The Orchard Oriole’s song, a rich, jumbled warble, is the one area in which it might be said to outdo the Baltimore in flair. The Baltimore’s song, a mellow, labored whistle, though pleasant, lacks the melodic complexity of its relative’s.
Like most of our neotropical migrants, both species stay with us for only about four months (though the occasional Baltimore Oriole can linger into winter, usually with the help of a bird feeder). So our window of opportunity for enjoying orioles is short, one of many good reasons never to be caught outside without your binoculars in May.
Orioles are fruit eaters—plant native fruiting trees and shrubs in your yard to help attract these spring beauties. You can also entice them with orange halves in special feeders.