Many of us get excited each spring when our migratory birds return. One of the birds that is most anticipated each year is the Baltimore oriole. These birds are as celebrated for their Halloween-like coloring as they are for how easy it is to attract them to your yard.
Baltimore orioles are here for only part of the year — and it’s a pretty short part. They typically arrive in May to begin nesting. They are one of the earliest birds to begin their migration south, leaving as early as July for their wintering grounds in Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
Baltimore orioles prefer a deciduous (trees and brush that shed their leaves annually) forest habitat, but they usually remain at the forest edges instead of deep in the woods. They've also adapted well to life around people and are often seen in yards and parks.
Read on to learn even more about these beloved birds.
Not all Baltimore orioles are black and orange
One of the reasons Baltimore orioles are so loved is because their black and orange plumage catches the eye and makes them easy to identify. However, not all Baltimore orioles are so easily seen. Like many songbirds, females lack the bright plumage Baltimore orioles are known for. Instead, they have olive brown heads and a more drab and subdued yellowish-orange breast.
Male orioles don't get their bright orange plumage until their second year. Until then, the males are more drab in color, similar to female orioles. Rarely, adult male orioles have a more reddish color than most of the birds. This is thought to be the result of eating the fruit from honeysuckle plants.
Baltimore orioles aren't the only orioles in town
Baltimore orioles get all the attention when they arrive in northern Illinois each spring, but they aren't the only oriole to spend time here each year. Orchard orioles live in much of the same territory as Baltimore orioles.
Male orchard orioles also have striking plumage, but where Baltimore orioles are orange, orchard orioles are a more russet or even maroonish color. Orchard orioles do not visit feeders as frequently as Baltimore orioles, but they sometimes sip nectar from hummingbird feeders and will occasionally eat the typical Baltimore oriole offerings of oranges and grape jelly.
The orioles that spend time in Illinois each year are just two of many oriole species that inhabit the United States. Bullock's orioles are found in the western United States, while hooded orioles can be found in the Southwest and along the California coast. The U.S. range of Scott's orioles is mainly limited to the Southwest, while the spot-breasted oriole is found in only a small portion of Florida and coastal Mexico. Altamira orioles and Audubon's orioles are found only in a small part of southern Texas and south into Mexico.
Their diet is more varied than you may think
Baltimore orioles are known for their sweet tooth, making them easy to attract to your yard each year with the simple offering of oranges and grape jelly. Their diet is much more varied, though. They also eat nectar and other fruits, including berries such as mulberries, cherries and raspberries, as well as a wide variety of insects.
Like many other birds, their diet varies by season. In the spring and fall, they rely more on fruits and nectar because the sugars can easily be converted to fat, which provides energy for migration. In the summer, protein-rich insects make up the bulk of their diet. They also feed their babies insects during summer.
Their nests are an architectural wonder
When you think of a bird's nest, an image of an oriole's nest is probably not what comes to mind. Baltimore orioles and orchard orioles both nest in trees like many other birds, but they build basket- or sock-like nests that hang from a tree branch as high as 30 feet above the ground.
These delicate nests are impressive structures. They are woven together from grasses, weeds and animal hair. They'll often use artificial materials as well, such as string and plastic strips and fibers. We've even found an oriole nest near the Forest Preserve’s Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon made entirely from synthetic fibers.
Female Baltimore orioles select a nest site and construct it on their own. They weave the fibers together by poking and darting their beaks in and out of the structure. Nest building occurs in three stages. First, the orioles create an outer bowl to give the nest structure. Next, they use stringy fibers to weave together an inner bowl. Finally, they line the inside with feathers and downy fibers to create a soft spot for the eggs and then hatchlings to rest. In all, it takes about a week to construct a nest, but it can take two weeks or more in wet or windy weather.
They aren't named for the city of Baltimore
You might guess that Baltimore orioles are named for Baltimore, Maryland, but it's not so. The birds and the city are both named for England's Baltimore family. The orioles' black-and-orange plumage was similar to the colors on the Baltimore family crest. The city of Baltimore was named for Lord Baltimore, patron of the colony of Maryland.
The term oriole is the newer part of the bird's common name. The birds were for a long time called Baltimore birds, with oriole being added much later. The word "oriole" is derived from the Latin term "aurelous," which means golden.
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