Plants and Animals

Baltimore Oriole

These vibrant songbirds are fun to spot and sing sweet, soothing melodies regardless of what you call them.

It’s not just a mascot for a Baltimore baseball team. This distinctive bird (Icterus galbula) is talented in its own right as one of Missouri’s great avian songsters. Historically considered two separate species, the Baltimore oriole and its western cousin, Bullock’s oriole, were considered a single species for a few decades in the late 1900s. As of 1995, officially they have regained their species status and no longer are called Northern oriole.

Considering the males’ vibrant flame-orange breast and deep black head and wings, you might think the oriole would be easy to find, but they manage to blend well into the foliage. Females are especially difficult to locate, due to their subdued tan and brown feathers. Their only adornment is a yellowishorange breast. The nests are usually found intricately woven onto a drooping branch of a deciduous tree. While reducing potential nest depredation, the location also makes spotting one of these songbirds even more challenging. Looking for the swinging bag nests of orioles in winter is a fun activity, and it offers practice in locating nests during summertime.

Perhaps the easiest way to find an oriole is through its distinctive song, which features a series of bright, slightly slurry whistles. In some species, the males will add a raspy sound to distinguish them to potential mates. You can hear an example of the Baltimore oriole’s song on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds Web site at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Baltimore_Oriole/sounds

While each oriole’s song is unique, all orioles have a similar pattern in their song, making it easy to distinguish orioles from other songbirds.

Opportunistic feeders, orioles are omnivores and consume nuts, fruit, spiders, insects and nectar. Orioles prefer woodland edges and open areas with scattered trees, preferably deciduous trees. However, they have been known to nest in urban parks and green spaces, making the most of what is offered. They can be found throughout the Midwest, north to Alberta and Ontario, Canada, and east to the coast of Maine. They extend south to Louisiana. When winter arrives, the birds will migrate south into warmer climates where nectar, flowers and fruits are available to eat in the humid forests. During migration, Baltimore orioles travel south and survive the harsh northern winters in some parts of the southern United States, but many go farther south into Central America and the northernmost reaches of South America.

Baltimore orioles will use whatever they can find to construct their pendant gourd-shaped nests, though they mostly use plant fibers. Many aficionados of orioles place yarn, long strands of dog, horse, or human hair or other fibers on a bush or wooden platform, and the orioles will readily incorporate the fibers into their nests. Normal nest lining material is grass, plant down and hair. A typical clutch consists of three to seven pale-gray to white eggs, streaked and marked by dark lines. They hatch within 11–14 days.

Orioles remain a favorite for birdwatchers across Missouri, as well as throughout the United States. With their colorful plumage and distinctive song, and the challenge of making their acquaintance, it is easy to see why.

photo by Danny Brown