Baltimore Oriole: A “Most Wanted” Backyard Bird

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S. Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

Focus on Natives:
Baltimore Oriole: A “Most Wanted” Backyard Bird

Audubon's Illustration

When traveling the Mississippi River in the early 1800s, John James Audubon wrote:

Much might the traveller find to occupy his mind, and lead him into speculations regarding the past, the present, and the future, were he not attracted by the clear mellow notes, that issue from the woods, and gratified by the sight of the brilliant Oriole now before you.

Turns out the great Audubon was just as fascinated by the Baltimore Oriole as many backyard birders are today. He wrote extensively of this bird, documenting its mating and nesting habits and physical characteristics. First officially documented by Linnaeus in 1758, the Baltimore Oriole was named for the  resemblance of the male’s coloration to the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland.

The Baltimore Oriole is a summer resident in most regions of the Southeast, and their return is eagerly awaited by many each year. In fact, BirdsandBlooms.com notes this bird as one of their 50 Most Wanted, alongside such favorites as the Indigo Bunting and Eastern Bluebird. Baltimore Orioles are on their way back north right now, so it’s the perfect time for Southeastern birders to learn more about them and how to attract them. Let’s start with the facts:

Male Baltimore Oriole, Photo: Roland Jordahl

Who:

  • Common Name: Baltimore Oriole
  • Scientific Name: Icterus galbuba

What:

  • Family: Blackbird (Icteridae)
  • Length: 8-3/4 inches
  • Wingspan: 11-1/2 inches
  • Distinctive Markings: Male has full black hood and fire-orange plumage. Female is drab yellow with dusky-brown wings. Young males do not grow their full adult plumage until their second fall. (Audubon insisted this wasn’t true, but he was later proven wrong.) Click here to see pictures of each.
  • Calls: Song – a series of rich whistled notes interspersed with rattles; Call – a chatter. Click here to listen to a sound clip.
A female Baltimore Oriole guards her nest. Photo courtesy of Illinois Raptor Center.
A female Baltimore Oriole guards her nest. Photo: Illinois Raptor Center.

Where and When:

And a few more things…

  • There are five species of orioles commonly seen in the U.S., two of which may be seen in the southeast. The other species you may see is the Orchard Oriole, which is smaller and present in the region for a much shorter time each year.
  • The Baltimore Oriole’s range overlaps with that of  Bullock’s Oriole in the middle of the country, leading to hybridization as the two inter-mate. For a while, the two birds were combined as one species called the Northern Oriole, but were separated again in recent years.
  • Though given the common name “oriole”, American orioles are not actually a part of the Oriole family, Oriolidae. True orioles are native to the Old World, and our American birds were named because of their resemblance to these European cousins.

And the most important question of all…

…how do you attract these lovelies to your own backyard? First, it’s important to understand that orioles don’t eat seeds and won’t visit a traditional bird feeder. A Baltimore Oriole’s diet consists of fruit, nectar, and insects. To bring them to your yard, offer them any of the following:

Oriole feeders like this one are available from sites like Duncraft.com.
  • Fruit, especially oranges: Orange halves and slices seem to be a favorite oriole treat. Be sure to change the fruit every few days to avoid rotting (probably daily in warmer climates or during the dog days of summer).
  • Grape Jelly: These sugar-lovers can’t seem to get enough of this stuff. Offer it in an open dish or even the jar itself.
  • Hummingbird Nectar: Orioles will visit hummingbird feeders with built-in perches; they can’t hover like hummers do, so they need a place to land. They are attracted to the color orange, so specific feeders have been designed to meet their needs.
  • Meal Worms: Baltimore Orioles love caterpillars in the wild. You can offer meal worms as an alternative in your own backyard, presented in an open dish.

David Musumeche of Backyard Chirper says that “the perfect oriole feeder station should be able to offer fruit, a sugar water solution holder, containers for mealworms, and containers for offering jellies… Your feeding station should be about seven feet off of the ground.” There are a variety of oriole feeders for sale, ranging from simple to elaborate. You can also build your own – look for more details on that in this Thursday’s “Working for the Weekend” post.

Probably the most important tip for attracting Baltimore Orioles to your yard is timing. In an article for Birds & Blooms, birding expert Anne Schmauss notes that if you don’t catch orioles when they first begin arriving to your area, you may not attract them at all that year. She also points out that it can take several years for orioles to begin visiting your yard, so patience is also key. Learn more of Anne’s tips by clicking here.

How do you attract Baltimore Orioles to your yard? Have you seen any yet this year? Help other birders bring this valuable visitor to their yards by offering your tips and experiences in the comments!

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.