The bright yellow and orange of a Baltimore oriole seems aflame as it dashes through the trees’ upper reaches. It is a tropic splendor in our northern sky. I always look forward to seeing a few of this remarkable bird species being around at this time of year.
The bird was called the Baltimore oriole because its thrilling plumage matched the coat of arms’ colors of a 17th century nobleman named George Calvert. He was Lord Baltimore,and the Maryland state flag still bears these striking colors. His land grant was north of the Potomac.
Ornithologists concluded in the mid-1980s that the bird west of the Rockies, the Bullock’s oriole and the Baltimore oriole of the eastern states were same species, since they interbreed in the Midwest. They called it the northern oriole.
Now, they’ve changed their minds once again back to the original name. Molecular studies of the oriole genus indicated that the two species are not very closely related. Guess we’ll just have to be content that professional baseball team’s name has maintained some continuity.
The male of this eastern race has orange for underparts, rump, and shoulders alongside his tail. He has considerable black in his makeup with the head and upper back and wings, and middle of the tail quite darkly compacted. This flash of brilliant coloring is matched by his high volume, liquid whistled song.
As visual as he is, I often hear the Baltimore oriole first in late May. The melodious, clear piping whistles make the bird doubly conspicuous in springtime. He starts this joyous calling upon arrival and will continue into early July. Thoreau somehow thought this call to say, “Eat it, Potter, eat it!”
The "orioles" of the Americas were named after similarly-appearing birds in the Old World. The American orioles are not closely related to the true orioles in the family Oriolidae. They are more so to blackbirds and meadowlarks. Both New and Old world orioles are brightly colored with red, yellow, and black.
The orioles used to nest in the tall, vase-shaped American elms in the past. These are now long gone in our New England towns. Since their demise, the gourd like pensile nest is built in other large deciduous, shade trees such as red and sugar maples. Those chosen are almost always in open situations alongside country roads, farmhouses, parks, and orchards. The Baltimore oriole is not a deep woods bird.
The female concocts the curious nest out of pieces of string, grasses, vines and other such materials. Milkweed, hemp, yarn, hair, grapevine bark, and wool are gathered up on or near the ground by her. The male watches from nearby. The work takes her four and a half to eight days and she builds a new one each year. Orioles seem to have a strong homing instinct, often returning to the same tree every year for our enjoyment.
The intricately woven, deep pouch is attached by the rim to a drooping branch and can be 8-inch long. The oval entrance leads to an interior depth averaging 4½ inches. The nest’s height may be 60 feet above the ground, but is usually around 30 feet up.
Many people enjoy supplying these birds with short lengths of yarn or hair to see them turned into this well-woven, deep, silvery pouch high overhead. Out by the bird feeder is a good place to deposit your pet’s grooming aftermath for this building material in the late spring months.
Male Baltimore orioles sing loudly while the female is incubating on the nest. In some cases, he relieves her and he usually does his full share of brooding and feeding the young. When these young have left the nest in late June, the male’s cheerful loud melodies cease.
The broods with the parents take to the woods, pastures, and thickets where wild berries are ripening. This new diet may now be 20 percent of their intake, after earlier being all insects, mostly caterpillars.
Mulberries, serviceberries, cherries, mountain ash, nuts and figs are among their favorite plant food. They will visit feeding stations if chopped fruit, apples, pears and oranges are firmly attached to appropriate feeders.
Orioles have been known to visit hummingbird feeders if there is enough of a suitable perch. Now, sugar water feeders are made especially for these beautiful birds, and may be purchased at local specialty stores.
Late in summer, while staying largely in the tops of maples and tall elms, the males may have a second song period. Molting into their winter plumage by early in September, they enter into their fall migration back to the tropics.
Their winter haunts are in Mexico and Central or South America. There, one may be surprised to see twenty at once in a single tree while staying at some hacienda during a guided eco-tour.
Dave Eastman also broadcasts “Country Ecology” four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 FM. As vice president of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: countryecology.com for consultation.