Did you know that the Baltimore oriole was named for the Baltimore family of England, whose crest has the same colors? It is also the State Bird of Maryland, the capitol being named for the same English family. This robin-sized cousin of the blackbird, grackle and cowbird measures 7″ to 8-1/2″ from beak to tail. It sports a black hood over its head and neck, brilliant orange back and breast, black and orange tail and black wings with white wing bars (Latin name: Icterus Galbula). The female is a duller orange below and olive-green on top with black wings and white wing bars. The long pointed black beak is well suited to piercing fruit and insects.
The oriole’s song matches its physical beauty with flutelike whistling notes, which vary within each song and with each individual. If there is trouble, orioles sound an alarm by chattering excitedly. They spend their winters in South America, but migrate northward as far as Canada in spring and return to their South American digs in the autumn.
Their preferred habitat includes open woodlands and riverside forest edges, farmlands and parks with fruit trees, nectar flowers and low-growing shrubs; also grassy meadows edged with tall trees.
PROVIDE THE BASICS: food, water, nesting material and shelter.
1. A grape arbor and or fruit trees would offer shelter and food as well as add beauty to your landscape. Consider also planting blueberries, raspberries, elderberries or dark cherry varieties. Our old mulberry tree was a very favorite spot for the orioles, as was the neighbors’ crab apple tree.
2. Plant a Vegetable Garden: The insects that love your vegetable garden are highly prized by orioles and lots of other insect-loving birds. No toxic pesticide is necessary!
3. Any nectar-yielding flowers will be relished by your orioles. They enjoy many of the same flowers that hummingbirds do. For example, plant coral honeysuckle, columbine, penstemons, monkey flowers, fuchsias, salvias, bee balm and catmint.
4. Cutting an orange or apple in half and hanging it from a tree is a well-known way to call orioles to the table. But did you know that they absolutely love grape jelly and strawberry preserves?
Serve these in tiny cups, no more than 2 tablespoons at a time. Otherwise their wings may become mired in the sticky goo, making them unable to fly. Orange marmalade, elderberry jam, black raspberry jam and applesauce are also fun to serve the orioles. I have heard that pink grapefruit cut in half will also please them. Experiment with different fruits, jams and jellies to see what your orioles prefer.
5. If you are not lucky enough to have a river or nearby stream, pond or pool, the orioles will be just as happy with a water fountain or bird bath. As long as it is large enough for them to bathe in regularly they will be happy. Just like catbirds, they love to take baths! Orioles will use a water feature or fountain many times in a day, particularly if there is a dripper or bubbler attachment. If it sounds like a babbling brook, lots of birds will investigate and enjoy the water!
6. Make sure you have a grassy area from which the orioles can glean their nesting materials. A small meadow planted with native grasses and wildflowers would be ideal. Also include teasel and or milkweed for the soft inner liner of the nest. Or refrain from mowing a small patch of your lawn during the nesting season in spring. Try cutting short lengths (about 2″ to 3″) of clean soft cotton yarn, and hang them from shrub and tree branches.
Their unusual nests are woven in 3 stages using grass, plant fibers, plant down and spider webs. The end product is a 5″ to 7″ sturdy, flexible pouch large enough to accommodate all the babies. I remember when I was a child, every year there was a Baltimore oriole nest hanging at the end of an elm tree branch about 25 feet in the air, right over the dirt road on which we lived. I used to worry that the babies would fall through the nest and be killed on the road below. I was unaware then how strong and flexible oriole nests are. Orioles build fresh ones every year to maintain their strength and structural integrity.
Orioles lay between 3 and 6 bluish-gray eggs that have irregular dark brown or black markings. If a cowbird should lay an egg in an oriole nest, the oriole mom is strong enough and smart enough to kick it out! They are not about to raise another bird’s baby. It takes about 2 weeks for the orioles to hatch from their eggs, and about the same amount of time before the fledglings take flying lessons from their parents.
7. Fruit bearing shrubs for food and shelter: even if you do not have tall deciduous trees nearby, orioles will use dense shrubs or regular fruit trees. This is true especially if you offer all their favorite foods. Choke cherries are a weed tree in which orioles love to nest. Those trees lined the back of our property and attracted all kinds of birds. They grew on the edge of a swampy area, and next to that was a field of wild black raspberries, and a grassy meadow. It was a natural bird sanctuary!
Plant low-growing shrubs, no more than 4 feet apart, in mass plantings to offer lots of hiding places and shelter from storms. Use varieties such as holly, cotoneaster, hawthorn, viburnum, weigela and pyracantha.
Birds’ habitats in general and orioles’ in particular are shrinking due to deforestation and urban sprawl. By crafting havens for birds like the colorful Northern (Baltimore) Oriole, our backyards can serve to replenish some of that lost habitat. The colorful beauty and lovely songs make for an oasis for humans as well.