For the Birds Radio Program: Orioles

Original Air Date: May 12, 1995 Rerun Dates: May 28, 1997

You may not want a Baltimore Oriole in your bird feeder—they weigh at least 180 pounds and wave bats around—but if you want any other kind of oriole in your feeder, it’s time to set those oranges out. 3:33

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The sweet and joyful song of the oriole proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that spring is really here, despite insolent ice still barricading the Duluth Harbor. The only thing rivaling oriole music is the oriole’s plumage, luscious, tropical orange, brilliant as sunshine, and set off to perfection with gleaming black on head, back, and wings. In extremely rare cases, orioles lack yellow pigment, and their feathers are brilliant scarlet–one of the most beautiful of all natural oddities.

Orioles love apple orchards, and so early European settlers quickly took notice of them, calling them the “fiery hang-nest.” In Maryland, this bird that carried the colors of the Lords Baltimore was quickly nicknamed the “Baltimore-bird.” Early American ornithologist Thomas Nuttall wrote that they seemed “like living gems intended to decorate the verdant garment of the new­-clad forest.” Another ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, heard in the oriole’s song “the pleasing tranquillity of a careless ploughboy, whistling merely for his own amusement.” Henry David Thoreau translated the song of Walden orioles as “Eat it, Potter, eat it!”

The rich tonal quality of oriole whistles is difficult but not impossible for humans to imitate. Even though the oriole’s song is a rather short and simple tune, each male seems to have his own melody. I used to be able to watch orioles by the dozen when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and birded every spring and summer morning on Picnic Point on Lake Mendota. I quickly learned to recognize individual orioles by their songs. They seem to listen to one another, and simply make their own variations on the local song theme, and it became an easy matter to recognize visiting migrants from local birds by their songs. Recordings of oriole songs are perhaps the most misleading of all bird recordings because of this extreme variability.

The first orioles of spring are easily attracted to oranges, and hanging orange halves from a deciduous tree or setting them on a platform feeder can lure these golden birds in for a pleasurable viewing experience. As spring progresses, orioles will tire of citrus, but will continue to come to feeders for sugar water or grape jelly.

Orioles prefer nesting in elms to other trees, though in Minnesota they’ve also long selected birches. As elms and birches succumb to disease, many orioles have adapted to other species. They build their exquisite purse-shaped nest near the tapered tip of a branch, where squirrels and crows can’t quite balance, and although the nest may sway dramatically in a wind storm, it is strongly woven and holds together amazingly well. Although orioles do winter in the tropics, they seem to actually prefer slash to mature forest down there, and overall, their numbers haven’t declined significantly over the last twenty or so years, especially compared to other neotropical migrants. A spring day without orioles would be a day without sunshine indeed.