For the Birds Radio Program: Baltimore Oriole

Original Air Date: May 17, 1989

Today Laura Erickson tells how you can attract orioles to your backyard.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

This is the week that the orioles normally return to the Northland. It goes by unnoticed by all but those who set out oranges. Hang orange halves with string from tree branches, or impale them with dowels in special feeders, or just set them out on a regular platform feeder, and orioles appear as if by magic. This conjuring trick only works in May, so if you want to see an oriole close up, get those oranges out soon.

Orioles eat the oranges voraciously until trees leaf out and caterpillars get common—then the orioles switch to a diet higher in protein. They eat caterpillars of all kinds, including tent caterpillars, and also take beetles, ants, bugs, grasshoppers, aphids, wood borers, and many others.

Lawn and garden sprays not only destroy their food, these toxins also poison the orioles, accounting in part for their decline over the past decades. They’ve also declined greatly because of tropical deforestation—they spend their winter from Mexico through Central and South America. The birds that do succeed in finding a suitable home to survive the winter return back to the Northland each spring only to find that their preferred nesting tree, the American Elm, is being decimated. Some orioles are now accepting ash, willow, and maple trees for nesting, but many have been lost indirectly because of the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease.

Such a beautiful and beneficial bird with so a tragic history at the hands of mankind deserves a little help from us, and many people enjoy feeding them oranges in spring. Once they stop eating oranges around Memorial Day Weekend, it is still possible to keep them at a feeding station with bowls of sugar water or grape jelly. Several years ago Duluth backyard bird expert Koni Sundquist told me to put cheap generic grape jelly out in a bowl—I set it on my picnic table, and quickly got orioles, catbirds, a brown thrasher, and Cape May Warblers coming daily. Koni’s trick of using sugar water in bowls not only attracts orioles and downy woodpeckers—it also brings in hummingbirds, which don’t necessarily have to feed at fancy hummingbird feeders to be happy.

You can help provide nesting materials by setting out short strands of yarn or cotton string—stick them in the crevice of a tree, and all kinds of neighborhood birds may come to them. Many people are tempted to use colorful yarns so that they can find the nests—this trick works, but may also make it easier for predators like crows and jays to locate the eggs or young. As much as I like corvids, I do think they should be able to find their live food without my assistance. Make sure never to set out yarn pieces longer than three or four inches—baby orioles and other birds have become tangled and even strangled in longer strands.

This relative of the grackle, cowbird, and redwing was named the Baltimore Oriole in 1731 because of its resemblance in color to Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms. It was relatively abundant back then, and some people even considered it a pest because of its fondness for garden peas, cherries, grapes, and other fruits. Even when they were common enough to be a greater problem than they are now, T.S. Roberts wrote, “The oriole is…one of our most valuable insectivorous birds and may be pardoned, perhaps, for certain minor faults.”

(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”