For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Oriole

Original Air Date: Dec. 9, 1992

What’s a Baltimore Oriole doing in Duluth in December? (3:34) Date verified

Audio missing


Last week as I walked to the school bus stop to meet my first-grader Tommy’s bus, my eye was suddenly caught by a whir of wings and a flash of orange. Orange? Yep. A Baltimore Oriole flew right past me and landed in a bare birch tree.

Orioles don’t belong in the Northland in November, and certainly not in December. This adult male in seemingly perfect health somehow lost his urge to migrate prematurely, and he’s in quite a fix. So far he’s doing fine. Apparently someone in the neighborhood has been providing oranges for him, and he’s also been visiting mountain ashes and crab apple trees. But a long winter without animal protein is hard on a bird that should be eating juicy tropical bugs as well as fruit right now.

Although orioles are genuine tropical birds that come to the Northland simply to raise their babies, the competition for space in the tropics every winter is increasingly severe, especially as the rain forest dwindles. And unlike some migratory birds, individual orioles have flexibility in their decision about whether to light out for the territory. Since 1949, the number of overwintering orioles has been increasing in the Atlantic states. There are records of orioles overwintering in southern Wisconsin, and even a few trying to overwinter in southern Minnesota. Unfortunately, such a conspicuously bright orange bird in a black-and-white landscape is vulnerable to predators, and without a balanced diet, it’s also pretty vulnerable to cold. So it’s no wonder that no orioles recorded trying to winter in Minnesota or Wisconsin have survived through February.

Many robins, especially adult males, winter in the Northland. In the past week I’ve received calls from Proctor and Cloquet about two of these. Robins that migrate have the advantage of warmer weather and more food; robins that stick it out avoid the hazardous journey coming and going, know their area in and out and so can avoid predators more easily, and have the edge come spring at claiming a breeding territory.

A few grackles, juncoes, and White-throated, White-crowned, and Fox Sparrows, as well as a few other species, are seen most years north of their normal winter range. Feeders are almost certainly not the lure that kept them here in the first place—most species time their migration for when food is most abundant, and the finest offerings at feeders pale in comparison with natural food. Sometimes a bird has an injury that holds it back, and sometimes it simply doesn’t amass enough body fat to trigger the migratory urge. As long as it’s stuck here anyway, feeders increase the chance that it’ll survive the season.

The oriole in my neighborhood seems healthy and perky, and would be darned hard to catch if someone took it into his head to take it into captivity to ostensibly protect it. Wild birds should have the freedom to make their own choices in life. So I’m keeping oranges out, and if this little guy suddenly starts recognizing me as a food source, I’ll start setting out mealworms for him. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying a little piece of the tropics in the midst of the gray Northland winter.