Imagine being one of the most brilliantly colored birds in North America, dressed in your blaze-orange best year-round, in a world where winged predators are not color blind like so many other predators. You can sing a beautiful song, but also have a loud and scolding chatter to protect your home turf that is an advertisement to anything in the area that you are present. In addition, you do not nest in traditional natural nests, like tree cavities or shrubs, but instead you are compelled to construct an elaborate hanging basket nest from the highest trees you can find in the area. Your diet can be varied, but your body must be able to process massive amounts of sugar and turn it into usable energy without it doing the damage that too much sugar can do to many other animals, including humans.
If you can imagine these traits in a species, then you know what it is like to be an oriole.
In our part of the country, the orioles we see are usually of two types: the Northern or Baltimore Oriole, and the Orchard Oriole. The Baltimore Oriole male is bright orange with black and a bit of white on its body. The female of the species is a bit greenish instead, with faint markings, I assume to make her blend into the forest canopy among the green leaves as she tries to raise her young. The Orchard Orioles are a bit smaller than the Baltimore Oriole, and are a darker shade of orange in the male, like a robin, with more black on its back and tail. The females of the Orchard Oriole are also greenish and yellow colored, again to blend into the high forest canopy. Young Orchard males that are a year old are also greenish with a very distinct black “V” on its neck and breast. They get their brilliant orange coloration in their second year.
Both species are not year-round residents of the Midwest. In fact, they don’t really care for the cold days of spring and fall we can have at times. They migrate to the tropics in fall, and spend falls and winters in Central and South America where it is warm, feeding on insects and fruit.
To attract orioles to your property, plenty of food in any shallow container in the spring and summer will do just fine. They may also visit hummingbird feeders to sip some nectar. In addition to insects and citrus fruits, the food these birds love is grape jelly, and not just the expensive stuff you can buy online especially made for birds. The cheap stuff will do. My wife and I know because we can go through around 16 ounces of the stuff a day at the peak of feeding and are compelled to save as much money as we can while still providing the birds with augmented nourishment for a few months a year. I know. It seems like a lot of trouble and cost for a few flashy birds to be seen constantly around your feeders, but like most human-assisted animals they serve a practical purpose to have around. The orioles are exceptional bug catchers. They live in forests and orchards (obviously, from the one’s name) and can rid your surroundings of harmful insects like beetles, weevils, aphids, apple maggots, and other bugs you normally would have to spray or treat to keep from destroying your crops. Yet another example in a long line of win-win situations for the birds and us humans - a symbiotic relationship.
One other “adaptation” in addition to their diet of processed jellies and replicated nectar we have noticed lately in the birds is their nesting habits. Not where they nest, but actually what they use for building their nests. As the attached picture shows, this nest we found that survived a long autumn tumble out of a huge cottonwood has some strange looking materials in it. Nothing found in nature, but found on nearly every farm that raises livestock and puts up hay -- baling wrap. Yes, that tangled plastic web that is used in most large hay bailers to keep them tight and somewhat water resistant these days seems to make the perfect weaving material for hanging such a nest. Nature’s engineering getting a boost from man, so to speak. I am not abdicating going around and placing plastic material anywhere as some plastics can be harmful to birds, fish, and animals, but here is an example of a species taking advantage of what we use, and I guess could be considered the orioles “up-cycling” our waste.
So celebrate the arrivals of the orioles in the spring if you are lucky enough to have them inhabiting your property, if only for a few months. If you can, encourage them to stay by augmenting their feeding, but they will ultimately choose if your property has the things they need to thrive. Remember these incredible birds are not only beautiful to watch, they are also incredibly adapted to helping us manage our environment in a safer and more effective manner than we can manage alone.
Happy birding, everyone.