For the Birds Radio Program: Orioles

Original Air Date: May 18, 1987

Reworked from May 14, 1986

Audio missing


May is the month to hang out oranges. This won’t transform your Northland home into a tropical paradise, but it will at least bring a little piece of the tropics home to you–the Northern Oriole.

During spring migration, orioles gorge on oranges wherever they can find them. Even when flying high overhead, orioles are attracted to the color orange, the same way hummingbirds are attracted to red. I’ve had orioles alight within arm’s reach when I was wearing my orange University of Illinois sweatshirt.

In May I always set a few orange halves on my picnic table, and tie others to tree branches. Some hardware and gardening stores sell orange feeders. Last year a Cape May Warbler visited my oranges, and this year a friendly neighborhood crow with a sweet tooth–or should I say beak– has discovered them. Crows aren’t popular with most adults, but my children are delighted to watch this enormous bird pigging out at our feeder.

By early June, for some mysterious reason orioles stop eating oranges. If you want to feed them all summer, you can plop some cheap grape jelly in a heavy plastic cereal bowl and set it on a feeder, deck railing, or picnic table. This will also attract catbirds and sometimes warblers–to say nothing of bees and ants. Sugar water in bowls is another possibility. But the best way to entice orioles to stay all summer is to provide them with a place to nest. Mature elms are their preferred tree–Dutch elm disease has decimated orioles as well as elms. Fortunately, some orioles will settle for other shade trees, like willows and ashes, with outer twigs sturdy enough to support a light hanging nest, but too thin to support squirrels, cats, and raccoons.

If a pair of orioles sets up housekeeping near you, you might set out pieces of string or yarn for them to use in nest-building. Make sure the pieces are no longer than about four inches–birds can easily become strangled in longer string. If the yarn is brightly colored, you’ll have an easier time locating the nest.

You won’t find the Baltimore Oriole on the official list of North American birds. In 1973, the American Ornithologists’ Union decided that the Baltimore Oriole and a western bird, the Bullock’s Oriole, were really just races of the same species, so they combined the two and renamed them the Northern Oriole. Some researchers now think that was a mistake, so if you still say Baltimore Oriole, don’t bother breaking the habit–you may turn out to be right. Ornithology would be a lot easier to master if we could only persuade the birds to read the bird books.

Orioles are in the blackbird family, along with Red-winged Blackbirds and meadowlarks. Their scientific name comes from the Greek word ikteros–for any small yellow bird. Ancient Greeks believed that if a jaundiced person sighted a small yellow bird, the person would instantly be cured, and the bird would drop dead. If you find that your vision has become jaundiced, the sight of an oriole may indeed cure you. And unless you are a jaundiced ancient Greek, looking at an oriole will not be fatal to the bird. If your hearing has become jaundiced, listen for its flute-like whistle.

(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

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