A male Baltimore oriole plunders an orange/Jim McCormac
May 31, 2020
This was the spring of the oriole.
Staggering numbers of Baltimore orioles appeared at feeders throughout much of May. This species, our most colorful blackbird, amazed many a feeder-watcher with their brilliant colors and sheer numbers.
Fans of backyard wildlife learned long ago that putting out sliced oranges would lure the orange birds. It’s not because style-conscience orioles want to color coordinate with their food. Rather, the sharp-billed birds regularly include nectar and fruit in their diet. To them, oranges are an irresistible treat.
Baltimore orioles will even dangle at hummingbird feeders, slurping at the tasty sugar water. Some people also put grape jelly out for them, which the birds will readily eat. However, jelly is not a recommended oriole food — there is no redeeming nutritional value to jelly.
Orioles’ calls are as conspicuous as their plumage. The birds regularly give loud flute-like whistles, creating a wonderfully melodic soundscape.
Back to the numbers. I cannot recall a spring with as many orioles being seen and reported on. Many people who target them with fruity handouts were stunned by the flashy displays. Bill Weaver of the Newark area sent me an amazing photo of his sister’s oriole feeding operation. She attracted as many as 27 birds at one time. The yard was awash with the flashy birds.
Attracting numbers like that also will provide a showcase of varying plumages. Male Baltimore orioles are the showiest. These sharp-dressed blackbirds are resplendent in crisp orange and black plumage. The bird’s name was bestowed by early naturalist Mark Catesby. He was reminded of the family colors of Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, the first proprietor of what was then the Province of Baltimore.
Among the ranks were plenty of female orioles. First-year females — those born last year — can be rather dull: mostly brownish-gray with orange tinges on the breast and tail region. Females brighten with age, and older ones can become nearly as orange as males, but they lack the ebony hood and back.
The Baltimore oriole’s lesser-known relative, the orchard oriole, was a minor part of the invasion. Although far fewer in number, many people were excited to see this smaller species appear in their yards for the first time.
A glance at eBird, a data repository of bird sighting hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, showed Ohio blanketed by oriole sightings. Such numerous sightings weren’t just limited to Ohio, either — birders over much of the eastern U.S. reported above-average oriole numbers.
The million dollar question: Why so many orioles? Like most things in nature, multiple factors probably contributed to the big numbers. Orioles have become increasingly attracted to feeding operations, and more people are trying to attract them. There probably is an overinflated sense of their commonness as compared with the myriad bird species that never visit feeders.
This was an unseasonably cold spring, which would have made insect stocks harder to access for migrant orioles. Also, flowering seemed delayed — orioles often take nectar from flowers — and in some cases, flower mortality probably was high because of late freezes. Floral paucity might have pushed higher-than-normal oriole numbers to feeders.
Most Baltimore orioles winter in the tropics of central and northern South America. Navigating this long migratory corridor back to northern breeding grounds is a hazardous endeavor. As the human population has burgeoned, we have thrown up an ever-more-perilous gauntlet that migratory birds must run.
A major mortality factor is collisions with Illuminated skyscrapers and other buildings, as most songbirds migrate at night. Vehicle roadkills also are common. Self-quarantining and temporary business shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an enormous reduction in human activity related to bird mortality.
Dimmed buildings and less traffic might have meant fewer bird kills. I wonder if the lack of human activity at the peak of spring migration allowed for higher than normal survivorship among orioles and other migrants.
Maybe there truly were more orioles around this spring to grace us with their presence.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.