BEING SUCCESSFUL IN ATTRACTING & FEEDING ORIOLES
Orioles are not as common or abundant as most of our year round resident birds. Yet, as a migratory species, they are reliably present from early spring to fall. We have had orioles at our station from as early as February until as late as early November.
Orioles (and their relatives, like the tanagers) have beautiful and strikingly colorful plumage, their exquisite and fluid songs, and their parenting and nesting abilities make them very desirable birds to attract and observe. The relatively small effort to attract and feed orioles rewards many backyard birders with orioles that return to the same habitats and feeding stations year after year. Many of our customers ask us how to attract these brilliant orange- and yellow-hued birds. This article addresses itself to answering this question.
Southern Arizona provides attractive habitat for several species of migratory orioles, particularly from spring to fall. The Hooded Oriole is the most common and abundant oriole in the lower desert elevations, including the metro Tucson area. They are the lone oriole species that may stay through the winter and remain year round in Southern Arizona. Occasionally, some of the lesser-seen species from Mexico make it far enough north to be observed in our part of the state. They are more often found along the riparian routes that such migratory birds use when they come north, particularly the San Pedro and Santa Cruz river systems. Reports from the Rare Bird Alert and Wild Bird Store customers indicate that La Cienega riparian area southeast of Tucson, and Dudleyville, northeast of Tucson along the San Pedro, are excellent locations for observing the more exotic oriole species. The
Black-vented and Streaked-back Orioles, and the even rarer (for Arizona) Orchard and Baltimore Orioles have been documented in Southern Arizona, especially from November through March, when they occupy the ecological niche left behind from the summer orioles. We have witnessed Orchard Orioles in November and Streaked-backed Orioles in February and March at our oriole station.
More reliably, there are three species that are locally common and seen throughout a larger part of the year in our corner of the state. They are the Hooded, Scott’s and Bullock’s Orioles. While all the species have somewhat different habitat needs, they all favor tall trees for nesting. The breeding season begins shortly after their arrival in late February to mid-March, peaks in early summer before the rains begin, and continues well into August and early September. It is important to create your oriole station well before you see your first oriole. Males migrate two to four weeks before females to stake a claim on the best feeding and nesting territories. Seasoned adult males (alpha males) always get the first choice of the best territories while sub-adults get lesser quality territory. If you wait until you see your first oriole before creating your station, it may already be too late and you may have to wait another year to create an inviting station that they attend numerous times per day, day after day for the entire season.
Orioles favor cottonwoods and sycamores in riparian habitats; eucalyptus and especially palms wherever they are found in areas of denser human populations; mesquites, agaves, yuccas, and desert willows in the lower arid regions; and pine and pine-oak habitat in higher elevations.
In the Tucson area, orioles always pick tall trees to nest in, particularly palms. They use the fibers from the palm fronds to weave well built nests that hang suspended beneath the fronds. Nests are usually sock or gourd shaped, rather elongated, and so strongly woven together that they usually last longer than many other species’ nests. Oriole nests tested for strength actually held slightly over eleven pounds of weight before bursting! Having palms and other tall trees in your yard or neighborhood is a proven attraction for nesting orioles. In addition to having suitable habitat nearby, if you create an oriole feeding station, your chances of attracting orioles on a regular daily basis will be much improved.
ORIOLE FEEDING HABITS
We advise our customers interested in adding orioles to their backyard setting to learn as much as they can about oriole nesting and feeding habits. Orioles eat a fairly wide variety of foods but insects, fruits and nectar are the staples in their diet. In the wild, the insects they prefer include spiders, caterpillars and beetles.
They tear open the cocoons of tent caterpillars to devour the larvae. Nuts ‘n’ Bugs insect meal is readily accepted in backyard feeding stations. Once introduced, this insect meal provides plenty of energy and protein without having to expend the energy needed for hunting live insects.
Native plants orioles utilize for food include many wild fruits and berries. They feed on wild fruits, such as cactus fruits, as well as cultivated fruits, particularly when the fruits are sweet and juicy ripe. Good examples of such fruits include all the sweet citrus fruits such as oranges and tangerines. (White grapefruits, rarely sweet by themselves, will likely be avoided). Other favored fruits used include ripe peaches, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, large grapes, and any of the melons, especially watermelon – their favorite! In addition to the general rule about using sweet and juicy fruits, ripe (even over-ripe) bananas are also fairly well received.
Most backyard birders first notice orioles at their hummingbird nectar feeders. Some models of hummingbird feeders have large enough food ports that determined orioles can access. In nature, orioles will take nectar from almost any type of nectar bearing flower. They extract the sweet nectar from many leguminous trees in the wild, and from introduced eucalyptus and fruit trees. They also consume nectar from a variety of flowering vines and cactuses. Ocotillo, with its thousands of flowers per plant, is a desert favorite. Hooded Orioles also prefer nectar from the blossoms of agaves, aloes, hibiscus and tree tobacco and lilies. If the flower is large and tubular, they often perforate the base with their bills or may even split unopened buds to reach nectar prematurely. Obtaining nectar using these methods does not pollinate the flowers, as hummingbirds, bats, and butterflies do.
ORIOLE FEEDING STATION
To obtain the best results and to reap the rewards of the presence of orioles year after year, have a little patience, offer
some of the plants/ habitat they prefer and create a feeding station for their use. A basic feeding station for attracting and retaining orioles is composed of two feeders – a suitable nectar feeder and a fruit/ insect combination feeder.
For best results (best both for the orioles and humans who feed them) use an orange-colored oriole nectar feeder, which is ideal, or a hummer feeder with large enough food ports that orioles can gain easy access. 1/4” diameter food ports is ideal – most hummer feeders are only half that diameter and orioles have to struggle to use them effectively and they usually make a sticky mess of it trying to access nectar from the smaller food ports on most hummer feeders. Nectar feeders for orioles simply insure greater success and ease of use for orioles without any sticky mess. Oriole nectar feeders also have larger perches than hummer feeders and are a bright orange color that can seen from quite a distance. Not only do orioles enjoy fruit oranges but they are particularly attuned to the color orange much in the same way hummers are attracted to the color red. The ornamental orange tree, which abounds in Tucson neighborhoods have fruit that is always sour or bitter tasting, and the birds will reject them.
The same ratio of five or six parts hot water to one part nectar works well for both hummers and orioles - after all, they share the same nectar nature offers in the wild. Keep in mind, sugar water (that is plain highly refined white cane sugar which is pure sucrose) is a very inferior substitute for real nectar, which is a combination of sucrose and dextrose. This combination of sugars more easily transforms to glucose which is the form of sugar the nectar eaters are designed to consume which provides them with 100% of the energy the birds need.
Just as with hummers, change the nectar solution twice weekly. In extremely hot weather it may need to be changed three times a week as that is the time of year when the birds are most numerous and the nectar will evaporate and/or concentrate quicker. If left longer than a few days, the danger of the nectar fermenting can begin. Fermenting nectar, that is nectar left too long in the feeder, only discourages the birds from returning to the feeder. As with hummingbirds, old nectar, which has fermented and turned to alcohol, easily harms the birds, particularly juveniles. Just as drinking and driving can cause death with humans, drinking fermented nectar and flying is dangerous and often lethal for birds.
The second basic component for an oriole feeding station is the fruit plus feeder. We usually carry two such feeder models. One, made by Looker Products in Illinois, is made from recycled bright orange plastic and polycarbonate and the other, made by The Wild Bird Store, features our classic inland incense cedar. Both feeders are similarly priced and feature a double-sided fruit spike and perches that can accommodate two halves of an entire fruit and two orioles at the same time. Use sweet and juicy oranges, or any other fruits mentioned above, for best results. Each feeder has built-in cups to offer insect meal or live insects such as mealworms. Most of our customers prefer using our insect meal, Nuts ‘n’ Bugs.
SAY NO TO JELLY---Years ago, jellies could also be used in the cups but nowadays all our bees are cross-bred with Africanized bees and they are potentially very dangerous. So, we no longer advocate the use of jelly for this reason. The other foods provide enough attraction for orioles so the jelly just is not necessary.
The nectar and fruit combination feeders constitute the basic feeding station for orioles and tanagers. Woodpeckers and mockingbirds will also take their fair share. If you want to provide a complete feeding station for these beautiful songbirds, consider getting a dedicated suet feeder for orange suet, which orioles will also eat. This feeder differs from
standard suet feeders that are designed strictly for clinging birds. We make a wooden dowel suet feeder for orioles that has a double-sided perch to accommodate these birds that don’t cling and prefer to perch. Remember to always use a no-melt suet made for our hot climate. The suet dough’s (double rendered) do not melt, become greasy, or cause any mess. Regular suets (single rendered) will melt and drip in hot weather and can cause real damage to birds if the suet becomes rancid or gets onto the bird’s feathers. Rancid suet can cause severe problems, even death, for birds unfortunate enough to eat it. Melted suet on their feathers, spread by preening, is almost impossible for birds to remove and may prevent the bird’s ability to fly. No melt, no mess suets can be used year round in our climate without any harm to the birds who use them. Orange suet works best for orioles, although they have been known to eat other fruit flavors.
Strategic location of the oriole station will also prove very effective in attracting these highly desirable birds. As they are not seedeaters, be sure to locate their feeding station away from any seed feeders. Best results are always obtained by giving your oriole station its exclusive area of the yard so the more numerous seed eating birds are not a bother to them. The feeders used by orioles should be relatively close to each other for easy use but separated by as much distance as possible from seed feeders. By creating an oriole station and locating it in its own area for their exclusive use, orioles will come and feed more at ease, visit your yard more regularly and quickly become backyard favorites.
Come in to our new store and ask our friendly and knowledgeable staff to show you how to create an oriole station and answer any questions you may have. If you want to do further research to deepen your knowledge of orioles, consult one of our favorite source books by the late ornithologist Alexander Skutch, Orioles, Blackbirds, & Their Kin – A Natural History, published by the University of Arizona Press, 1996.
This article was reprinted from The Wild Bird Store Newsletter, February, 2011.