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By Jon & Shani Friedman

(Author’s note: If you are serious about attracting Orioles to your yard on a regular everyday basis, refer to our archive of recent year’s newsletter articles on our website – wildbirdsonline.com. Click on the box titled “birding articles”, third box from left at the top of the home page. Following the advice and directions you read there will increase your likelihood of success with attracting Orioles (and perhaps tanagers, too). However, be aware that the best chance for success is dependent upon setting up your oriole station now, at the beginning of the oriole season. By April, most of the male orioles will have established themselves in the best available territory and, if that’s not in your yard, you may have to wait until the next breeding season before you have such a good chance at being successful with these beautiful, but somewhat skittish, birds. The article to look for is titled “Being Successful in Attracting and Feeding Orioles”.)

When the territory of Maryland was settled by Cecil Calvert, the second baron of Baltimore, the settlement was named Baltimore in his honor. He sent back skins of various birds and animals to London to show his fellow Europeans what some of the New World creatures looked like. Among them was the skin of a beautiful orange and black bird that was called oriole, after the European oriole. In 1776, when the famous Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, was preparing his scientific nomenclature, he called this bird the Baltimore Oriole in honor of Lord Baltimore, whose family colors were black and orange. But, the birds commonly called orioles in this country are not members of the Oriole Family, Oriolidae, at all. Oriolidae is composed of 28 to 34 brightly colored species of Old World birds that are found from Africa, southern Asia, and the East Indies to New Guinea and eastern Australia. They are closely related to starlings, crows, and jays. Our orioles of the New World belong to the large and diverse Icteridae, which includes blackbirds, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, and the bobolink, as well as the caciques and oropendolas of the American tropics. They are closely related to the tanagers, weaverbirds and finches. Anatomically speaking, Oriolidae has ten primary wing feathers, while Icteridae has nine.

If you develop an oriole feeding station in your backyard in Arizona, you may be amazed at the variety of these black and gold beauties that you will attract. Of the ten species of orioles found in North America, three are relatively common and easily attracted during the spring and summer months, particularly – the Hooded, Scott’s and the Bullocks. The Black-vented and the Streaked-backed Orioles are also seen in Southern Arizona, although not as frequently. These last two species can in fact even be seen both before and after the three common orioles have arrived or departed. The best places to find orioles in our area is at our own backyard feeding stations. (The archived article explains this).

Bullocks Oriole, Icterus galbula bullockii, is closely related to the well-known eastern bird, the Baltimore Oriole. Since 1973 they have been considered subspecies of the Northern Oriole, but in more recent years they have been reclassified as distinct entities. The two birds are similar, but the fiery orange Bullock’s male can be recognized by his black crown and orange cheeks. The Baltimore male has an all-black head. The females look alike. The lady Bullock’s is olive above, and buffy white below, with yellow on her tail, and two white wing bars. The female Baltimore is much more yellow orange below, and her belly is not as white. Where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains, the two birds commonly interbreed.

The Bullock’s Oriole is the most common oriole in the American west. It summers down in the cottonwoods, willows and sycamores lining streams, up into lower mountain canyons, in large tree around ranches, and in semiarid mesquite groves. Farmers call it a friend as about eight percent of its diet consists of pesky caterpillars of codling moths, beetles, acorn weevils, cotton-boll weevils, ants, black olive scales, leafhoppers, treehoppers, aphids, grasshoppers, and alfalfa butterflies, which it catches on the wing. Most everything else it eats is fruit. It relishes cherries, apricots, figs, persimmons, blackberries, hawthorn berries, raspberries, and elderberries. It also visits flowers and nectar feeders.

The Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) is the most common of our desert orioles and most widespread in the choice of habitats. It is found in thickets and woods of the semiarid country. It is equally comfortable living around ranches and towns, in cities and suburbs, and especially in cottonwoods and sycamores along streambeds. It also favors palm, walnut, cypress and gum trees. The male Hooded Oriole’s crown and the back of his neck are bright orange. His throat, breast and tail are all black. The female is olive green above, and yellow below. Her dark gray wings sport two white wing bars. When they arrive in Arizona, anywhere from late February to early April, after wintering from the Mexican border south, the male courts the females with bows, exaggerated posturing and chases. The Hooded sings warbled throaty whistles that are alternated with chattering. The bird is rarely seen on the ground. It is a shy, restless creature that haunts the dense foliage of trees and shrubbery in their search for insects. Sometimes it even hangs upside down when hunting caterpillars. Since it also spends a good share of its time probing flowers for insects and nectar, it comes to feeding stations  in yards and gardens. Unlike hummingbirds, which use the entire length of their bills to explore deep into trumpet shaped flowers, the oriole uses it sharp, pointed beak to puncture a hole into base of the lower and get nectar in a more immediate way.

The Scott’s Oriole, Icterus parisorum, is found from Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas to southern California, Baja California, and south into Mexico. This oriole is black and deep lemon yellow. The male’s head, throat, and upper breast and back are solidly black. His wings are black with one white wing bar, his black tail has yellow outer feathers, and his rump is yellow. The female is olive green above with a streaked back, dingy green yellow below, and she has two white wing bars. Look for dusky cheek patches to cinch your identification of the female Scott’s Oriole. Old females and juveniles can have a black or speckled throat. This species summers north of the Mexican border, between the mountains and the desert. It likes the pinyon-juniper belt in the foothills, desert slopes of mountains, or more elevated semiarid planes. The male constantly sings a richly varied whistled song that is reminiscent of the meadowlark. The male Scott’s is considered by many the best singer of the family and their rich, melodious tunes are a joy to hear. The female sometimes sings softly near the nest. They eat grasshoppers, caterpillars, small beetles, butterflies, berries, cactus fruits, and they also probe the flowers of aloes, cacti, and other plants for nectar and insects.
There are no records of the Streaked-backed Oriole (also called the Scarlet-headed Oriole) nesting north of the Mexican border, but when it does appear in Arizona it ranks as one of the most colorful of all the orioles that can be seen in the entire country. The 8” long males resemble the Hooded Oriole, but he has a deeper red orange color around his head and has a narrower black throat patch. Most striking is this bird’s orange and black streaked back. The female is a much duller version of the male, with a gray or olive streaked back.

Whatever their species, the orioles are famous for their complex nest building. They take from a few days to over a week to deftly weave a pendulous baglike nest out of long strand of natural fiber (palm is preferred), and any pieces of light colored yarn or string they may find. They have been known to patiently unravel clothesline to use in nest making. These nests are easily seen in the winter after the leave fall. Look up about 25 feet, and you may see one, hanging from the branches of trees, gently rocking in the wind.

The nests are extremely well constructed, and incredibly strong. Alexander Skutch, my favorite ornithologist and expert on orioles, once cut down a year old weathered nest after it had been used, abandoned, and left out in the elements all winter. He fastened the branch to which the nest was attached to a scale and poured lead shot into the nest to attempt to determine how much weight would be needed to tear the nest from the branch. Even though an entire nest of orioles weighs only six to eight ounces, and the nest was worn, used and weather beaten after a year of non-use, it took eighteen pounds of lead to remove it from the branch! Despite the strength of such a nest, and the fact that they frequently return to same exact tree to raise a new family in following years, the orioles rarely, if ever, reuse a nest – instead preferring to build a new one each season.

If you are serious about attracting orioles that will return year after to your yard and station, be sure to read the earlier mentioned archived article on our website. If, after that, you have any questions about attracting and feeding orioles, please call the store or come in to get the advice and recommendations and see the correct feeders to use.

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