Three cheers for the colorful Baltimore oriole
Without fail I observed my first Baltimore oriole around Mother's Day weekend. If memory serves, it seems that each spring I typically see hummingbirds a day or two before I catch sight of an oriole's vivid orange and contrasting black markings and hear the telltale call-notes of vocalizing males.
A week following Mother's Day, something happened that I've never observed before. There evidently was a massive influx of migrating orioles to the countryside, because I wasn't the only bird lover that noticed it.
I had no fewer than a dozen brightly colored male Baltimore orioles trying to muscle one another from the oriole sugar-water feeder's four feeding ports. It was a sight to behold and enjoy.
My eventual Facebook post about the observation prompted a few other people in the greater Bemidji/Itasca State Park area to chime in and recount their oriole experiences as well. Many others observed the same thing: lots of orioles.
Now it appears that the oriole invasion has subsided. What began as a dizzying mass of orange and black colors that delighted my color-starved eyes, has now dwindled down to the usual four or so orioles. And as a result, I'm no longer filling the feeder once a day.
Orioles belong to the avian family Icteridae. This is the same family that blackbirds, meadowlarks, bobolinks, grackles, and cowbirds belong to. That said, it's hard to mistake an oriole for any other species of bird, but you can definitely observe the features that orioles share with other species within their family.
For example, acrobatics might be just one similarity that orioles share with red-winged blackbirds. Next time you observe a blackbird clinging to a cattail stalk, watch how an oriole clings to your oriole feeder — each species are quite good at perching in unusual positions.
All orioles, and most especially the males of the species, are colorful arboreal birds. Adult males are adorned with brightly colored breasts, bellies, and rump patches that contrast sharply with black heads, wings, throats, and in some species, black backs and tails. Most year-old males are colorful too, and sometimes present a unique challenge for birders. Juvenile males tend to look like different species altogether.
Depending on which bird books you look at, nine species of orioles occur in North America. Our most common oriole here in Minnesota is the Baltimore oriole. Again, depending on the bird book or the year the bird book was published, the Baltimore oriole is sometimes classified as a "race" of the so-called northern oriole. In some field guides the northern oriole is comprised of two races: the Baltimore and the Bullock's. But as far as I know, the Baltimore and Bullock's orioles are now recognized as separate species.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Baltimore oriole and other New World orioles, are the nests they build, or better written, weave. Baltimore orioles weave elaborate hanging pouch-nests consisting of grasses and other vegetation. The nests are normally hung from the outermost, thin branches in the canopies of mature hardwood trees.
These durable nests are the result of tightly woven construction, strong knots, and superior building materials. It's amazing that a bird with just beak and feet can build structures that human hands, fingers, and opposable thumbs would have great difficulty duplicating. A friend and neighbor of mine, Rick Colbert, learned years ago that if he hung pieces of thin cotton string on branches and other visible places throughout his yard, that orioles will take and use the string as nest building material. Not a bad idea Rick!
If you don't already do so, now is a good time to purchase an oriole feeder and fill it with sugar sweetened water. One part sugar to three or four parts water will do the trick, in fact, the sweeter the better. Or slice up some oranges and place the slices outdoors onto nails driven into the trunks of trees, or placed inside a bowl on something visible to you and your birds. Grape jam is an oriole favorite, too.
In my book nothing beats springtime in northern Minnesota. Indeed, many migrant species of songbirds have arrived once again, including the beautiful Baltimore oriole, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.