Last April, I was picking up clothes from my daughter’s bedroom floor when my eye caught a flash of orange outside her window. Dirty socks in hand, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a brilliant orange-and-black Bullock’s oriole. There he was, clinging to my flower basket, plucking and eating the red blossoms from my geraniums. Oh no, I thought, I don’t have my feeder out!
It was mid-April in New Mexico, and I knew orioles were already arriving. Customers at my bird store had reported seeing them for a week or so, but procrastination got the best of me. Normally a bit of laziness doesn’t make much difference when feeding birds, but with orioles, timing is everything!
After a few minutes, my oriole flew off. Moving quickly, I found my oriole feeder, filled it with sugar water and hung it outside. I never saw the orange guy come back, though.
For the next couple of weeks, I faithfully filled the feeder with fresh nectar every few days, but it was too late.
Orioles are stunning birds, much anticipated by bird lovers. Even though males are brighter, females are gorgeous fliers as well.
You can find nine orioles in the United States, but only five are common.
Wondering how to attract Orioles to your yard? Baltimore and orchard orioles are widespread in the East, and the Bullock’s is found throughout the West. The Scott’s and hooded orioles are common in the Southwest, but you can see the other four orioles only at the extreme southern edge of Texas or Florida.
Orioles spend their winters in Mexico and Central and South America, where they can find a steady source of insects, fruit and nectar. Then they migrate north to nest in early spring.
And what a nest it is! Many orioles look for tall deciduous trees, where they carefully weave together plant fiber and sometimes yarn or string.
Some orioles will take up to 12 days to construct their pendulous sac-shaped nests on the ends of slender branches. This precarious placement keeps the eggs and babies relatively safe from climbing predators and other nest robbers.
Your chance to see orioles doesn’t last long, because most start to migrate south in August. It’s a thrill to see these beautiful and sometimes elusive songbirds. Whether you spot them for just a day or are lucky enough to have them visit your yard most of the summer, they are one of spring’s greatest bird treasures.
All in the Family
BALTIMORE ORIOLE. This stunning black-and-orange bird is found throughout the Midwestern and Eastern U.S. It is very similar in appearance to its Western cousin, the Bullock’s oriole. In fact, at one time both species were considered the same and were called the northern oriole. Their ranges overlap in the middle of the country. Some Baltimore orioles spend their winters as far north as the extreme Southeast coast of the U.S.
BULLOCK’S ORIOLE. Bullock’s orioles are the most widespread orioles in the West, where they prefer to nest in tall trees along streams and rivers. They are named in honor of William Bullock and his son, who did extensive ornithological work in Mexico in the early 1800s. Bullock’s orioles love grasshoppers and will feast on them almost exclusively when they are plentiful.
ORCHARD ORIOLE. The orchard oriole is the smallest oriole in North America and is common throughout the Midwest and East, though you may not see it as often as the Baltimore because it rarely visits nectar feeders. The orchard oriole comes a bit later than other orioles in the spring and sometimes heads south as early as mid-July.
SCOTT’S ORIOLE. Commonly seen in the arid Southwest, the Scott’s is hard to miss. The male is lemon-yellow and black and readily comes to nectar feeders. Although many orioles nest in very tall trees, the Scott’s often nests in the relatively short yucca plant. It also eats nectar from the yucca flowers and uses fibers taken from dead yucca for nest building.
HOODED ORIOLE. The hooded oriole is also found in the Southwest and is named for the male’s orange hood. This small, slender oriole often builds her nest in palm trees, where she literally sews the saclike nest onto a palm leaf.
Photography c/o Scott’s Oriole: Patsy Hicks; Bullock’s Oriole: Roland Jordahl; Orchard Oriole: Hazel Erikson
More expert tips on how to attract Orioles to your backyard!
- Start early. Your best chance of attracting orioles is when they first arrive in early spring.
- Use the same nectar recipe for orioles as you do for hummingbirds-four parts boiled water to one part sugar. Keep nectar fresh, and don’t use food coloring.
- These birds are attracted to the color orange, so look for a sugar-water feeder specifically designed for orioles.
- Make sure your feeder has large enough perches and drinking ports. It’s not unusual for orioles to try hummingbird feeders, but their bills are often too big. Orioles love the color and taste of oranges. Offer orange halves on a branch or feeder. Orioles will also eat grape jelly. Serve the jelly in an open dish or cup, and keep it fresh.
- When placing the oriole feeder in your yard, think like a bird. Instead of hiding the feeder under an awning or tree, put it out in the open so the birds can see it while flying overhead.
- Hang your feeder near a birdbath. If your bath has a bubbler, even better. Orioles love the sight and sound of moving water.
- Put out yarn and string. Orioles and other backyard songbirds will use it for their nests.
- If you don’t attract orioles in your first year, keep at it. It often takes several seasons to find a following.