A flash of glowing orange among the pale green of new leaves and a melodious whistle floating on the breeze—after you’ve seen an oriole on a spring morning, you’ll understand why these songbirds are perennial favorites. The Baltimore oriole, common all over the East in the warmer months, is the most famous member of the clan, but you can see seven additional species across North America.
“Oriole” is based on several Latin words that all mean “golden.” The name was first applied to a European bird, a member of what is now called the Old World oriole family. However, American orioles are completely unrelated. They are classified in the blackbird family, along with such birds as grackles, red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks. The tropics of Mexico and Central and South America are home to more than 30 species of orioles, so the eight found north of the Texas-Mexico border are just the tip of the colorful iceberg.
In most familiar oriole species, females wear mainly hues of greenish yellow to orange-yellow and are not as brightly colored as males. Females do most of the work of building the nests and incubating the eggs, but males do chip in to help feed the young.
The female orioles deserve credit as remarkable builders. Their nests are marvels of avian architecture: hanging pouches or bags of tightly woven plant fibers, attached by their edges and suspended from twigs. Many oriole nests are deeper than they are wide, and despite their distinctive appearance, they can be hard to spot, because they’re often surrounded by heavy foliage. Backyard birders often discover an oriole nest in their trees only after the leaves have fallen in autumn. (Read more! 8 Surprising Facts About Orioles)
Here’s where and how to spot every oriole species regularly found in the U.S. and Canada.
The Backyard Superstars: Baltimore, Bullock’s and Orchard Orioles
Decked out in orange and black, male Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles add dazzling color to backyards in summer—Baltimores in the East, Bullock’s in the West. Where they meet on the western Great Plains, the two sometimes interbreed, creating hybrids. For a few years they were categorized into one species called “Northern oriole,” and you can still find that name in some older books. Most fly to the tropics for the winter, but increasing numbers of Baltimore orioles are now staying through the cold months in some eastern states where people keep feeders filled to attract them.
Widespread in the East and parts of the Southwest in summer, orchard orioles are smaller than other orioles, and adult males have a unique color combination with deep chestnut instead of orange and yellow.
The Southwest Duo: Hooded and Scott’s Orioles
Scott’s orioles are found from eastern California and northern Utah to the Hill Country of central Texas. Open woodlands of juniper or oak may be good habitats for them, but they’re especially drawn to areas with lots of yucca plants, building their nests among the long, daggerlike yucca leaves. The rich, bubbling song of the male Scott’s oriole carries for long distances across arid hillsides.
In summer, hooded orioles are common from coastal California to southern Texas, chiefly in lowland riversides, canyons and backyards. They often place their nests in palm trees, using the long, strong fibers of palm leaves as nesting material. But if no palms are available, they’ll readily nest in sycamores, cottonwoods or other trees. Adult males are primarily orange (including an orange “hood”) with black accents.
The Tropical Trio: Altamira, Audubon’s and Spot-Breasted Orioles
The southern tip of Texas is home to two lesser known orioles, Altamira and Audubon’s. Unlike the more northern species, these two are nonmigratory, sticking around all winter in that subtropical climate. Another difference from their northern cousins: the sexes look the same. Both male and female Altamira orioles look like supersized male hooded orioles. The female Altamira builds an astounding nest, a hanging bag of plant fibers that may be 2 feet long, sometimes suspended from telephone wires.
Audubon’s orioles are not so flamboyant; both males and females are mainly yellow, with black head, wings and tail. The Audubon’s song is slow and hesitant, like a person learning how to whistle.
In the past, southern Florida had no orioles in the summer, just Baltimore and orchard orioles during migration and winter. But some spot-breasted orioles—native to Central America and sometimes kept as cage birds—escaped from captivity near Miami in the 1940s and established a population in suburbs around southeastern Florida. This is another tropical species in which the males and females look alike.
With all these possibilities, you have a chance to see one or more kinds of orioles practically anywhere. With a little luck, these golden birds may treat you to a glimpse right outside your window. (Read more! How to Attract Orioles and Tanagers with Jelly)
How to Attract Orioles
Bring these colorful songsters to your yard with these expert tips.
1. Native trees
Orioles love trees, especially native varieties. The top choices will depend on where you live, but elms, cottonwoods and sycamores are typically good options.
More than most songbirds, orioles love nectar, and they may visit some of the same tubular red flowers that attract hummingbirds.
3. Sugar water
Orioles will come to feeders that contain a mix of one part sugar to four parts water. No artificial coloring needed! Regular hummingbird feeders work if they have perches, or you can buy orange-colored feeders designed for orioles.
Half of a fresh orange, impaled on a stick, makes an easy and irresistible snack for orioles.
5. Other Foods
A small dish of grape jelly may attract orioles, catbirds and other popular backyard fliers. Live or dried mealworms might draw a crowd as well.