With luck and good food, they may return to your backyard feeder this winter
By Susan Campbell
Northerners who relocate to the North Carolina coast often ask me about birds familiar to them that seem absent here in our fair state. One that is close to the top of the list is the Baltimore oriole. Its striking plumage and affinity for sweet feeder offerings make it a real favorite among backyard bird lovers.
Male Baltimore orioles are unmistakable with bright orange underparts, a black back and head, as well as two bold white wing bars. Females and immature birds are yellow to light orange with the same white wing bars. They have relatively large yet pointed bills that are very versatile while foraging. Males sing a very melodic song made up of several clear whistled notes.
As it turns out, Baltimore orioles actually do nest in North Carolina — if you venture far enough west. In our mountains they can be found weaving their elaborate nests that dangle from high branches, often over water. Following two weeks of incubation, the young will spend another two weeks before they fledge. By midsummer the adults will spend their days in the treetops, looking for caterpillars and small insects to feed their growing families.
However, since these birds winter throughout Florida and all the way down into Central America, you certainly might spot a few as they pass through in spring or fall. But there is also a chance one or two might spend the winter in your neighborhood if you have the kind of habitat they seek out in the cooler months. Should your yard be to their liking, they may return year after year, bringing others (presumably family members) with them. I know winter oriole hosts in the eastern half of the state who count a dozen or more birds frequenting their feeders from October through March every year. Several of these hosts are right here in the Wilmington area.
Baltimore orioles will seek out areas with lots of mature evergreen trees and shrubs of which a significant portion bear some sort of fruit. These birds are relatively large and colorful so require thick cover for protection from predators — especially fast-flying bird hawks such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinneds. Without this, it has been my experience that they will not linger long even if food is plentiful. But should they feel safe, the odds are they will settle in and become a regular backyard fixture. Baltimore orioles will continue to consume any insects they happen upon but will switch to a diet of berries and whatever fruit or sweet treats they find at bird feeders. They are known to enjoy not only suet mixes with peanut butter, but also orange halves, grape jelly and even marshmallows. Also, they will avail themselves of sugar water from hummingbird feeders they find still hanging. I suspect this is why more of these birds have been reported in recent years — since more folks are feeding wintering Ruby-throateds every year. There are special larger sugar-water feeders made for orioles that usually contain partitions for placing other solid treats as well. Baltimore orioles definitely enjoy mealworms too, should your budget allow.
Interestingly, a few very lucky individuals have been treated to out-of-place Scott’s oriole as well as Bullock’s here in North Carolina. Furthermore, these mega-rarities have turned up at sites without any other orioles present. Keep in mind that we also do find Western tanagers at feeders in winter sometimes, more so along the coast than inland. The females and immature birds of this species look very similar to female or immature Baltimore orioles, differing only in the shape of their bills and the color of their wing bars.
Many people do not realize that orchard orioles can be found here in place of Baltimores during the summer months. Their plumage is less striking, nests are less complex but their songs are almost as sweet. But that is a story for another day . . . . b
Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.