Orioles: Shy Birds That Are More Often Heard Than Seen
The Orioles of North America
If you are an avid birdwatcher, or you simply love birds, colorful, shy orioles might just be some of your favorites. They are flashy and they are bright but usually, you will hear them before you see them, as they are very vocal birds that love to chatter. A description of the sounds of the different species is included in this article.
Your chances of hearing them are great if you live anywhere in North America, where there are at least nine species of orioles - the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) and the orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) in the eastern regions; and the Bullock's oriole (Icterus bullockii) and Scott's oriole (Icterus parisorum) in the western regions. The spot-breasted oriole (Icterus pectoralis) is found only in the suburbs of southern Florida. In the southern states and Mexico, you can find the Audubon's oriole (Icterus graduacauda), the hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus), the streak-backed oriole (Icterus pustulatus), and the Altamira oriole (Icterus gularis).
If you would like to know where to locate any of the above-mentioned birds, this article should help you out, as we have included range maps for each of the nine species known to be in North America.
Orioles in the Eastern RegionClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Baltimore Oriole
The flaming orange and black colors of the Baltimore oriole make it one of the most beautifully-colored songbirds of North America. This gorgeous bird received its name because of the similarity of its colors to the ones used in the coat of arms of Lord Baltimore in the 17th century.
Because the Baltimore oriole hybridizes extensively with the western Bullock's Oriole where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains, they once were considered the same species and called northern orioles. After genetic studies in the 1990s, they were once again recognized as two unique species.
Baltimore orioles live in open woods, shade trees, elm trees or riverside groves but are often seen in trees in urbanized areas. They breed in deciduous or mixed woodland areas, preferring open woods or the edges of the woods to the dense interior. If you are trying to catch a glimpse of a Baltimore oriole, you need to cast your gaze high in the trees because they like to perch in the top of trees. Even when searching for insects, they will usually flit about in a tree's upper foliage.
Their Diet and Feeding Behavior
All Orioles, like many of us, have a sweet tooth. Some of the things that Baltimore orioles prefer are berries, fruit, nectar, peanut butter, and suet. They also like to dine on insects and will actively seek out ripe fruit, especially oranges that have been cut in half exposing the sweet fruit inside. These birds seem to prefer ripe, dark-colored fruit, seeking out the darkest mulberries and cherries, along with the darkest purple grapes. They are known to ignore ripe green grapes and yellow cherries which are considered treats to most other fruit-eating birds.
A Baltimore oriole will use its slender beak to feed in a method called gaping, where it thrusts its closed bill into soft fruits, opening its mouths wide (thus the name gaping) to cut a section from which they drink.
The Sounds of a Baltimore Oriole
The Baltimore oriole has a mix of slow, quickly repeated whistles - more whistled and slower than the orchard oriole, and lacking the sharp, high notes.
The Orchard Oriole
Orchard orioles are common birds, but often inconspicuous as they flit about in the tops of scattered trees. You are most likely to see them in the first few months of summer since many of them leave their breeding ground in late summer, which is a bit earlier than most other birds that migrate.
Their Preferred Diet
Orchard orioles will eat the nectar and pollen from flowers, particularly in the winter. They serve as pollinators for some tropical plants when its head becomes covered in pollen, which is then transferred from one flower to another. If the oriole pierces the base of the flower to retrieve the nectar, no such pollination takes place.
They mostly eat insects and other arthropods, but love the taste of fruit and nectar. Foliage provides them an endless supply of ants, bugs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, mayflies, and spiders. And, like the other species, its sweet tooth draws the orchard oriole to hummingbird feeders.
The Sounds of the Orchard Oriole
The orchard oriole likes to sing the high notes! Its songs are higher than other species and harsher and faster than the Baltimore oriole. Its sweet whistles may resemble the sounds made by some other familiar birds such as robins or grosbeaks but if you listen for harsh churrs and chatters interspersed with the high notes you should be able to distinguish this species from other birds.
Southern Florida's Spot-Breasted Oriole
The Spot-Breasted Oriole
Apparently, in the 1940s, a caged spot-breasted oriole escaped from captivity in the Miami, Florida area. These orioles, native to southwestern Mexico and Central America, have historically been kept by some as pets in cages. The escaped bird found the suburbs of southern Florida, with endless varieties of exotic plants, to be suitable habitat, and began thriving there in areas between Miami and West Palm Beach. Unlike most North American orioles, both the male and female are bright and look alike, a common trait of tropical orioles.
Their Diet and Feeding Behavior
Spot-breasted orioles forage slowly and deliberately in the branches and foliage of trees searching for berries, nectar, and insects. They often forage among flowers, extracting the nectar and eating parts of the flower itself.
The Sounds of a Spot-Breasted Oriole
The male sings a slow series of clear, rich whistles but the female's song, although she sings often, is somewhat simpler and thinner than that of the male.
Orioles in the Western RegionClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Scott's Oriole
The Scott's oriole was named in honor of General Winfield Scott, the longest-serving military general in American history. A male Scott's oriole has a solid black head and back, with the black extending down onto the chest area forming a jagged pattern against the lemon-yellow of its underparts. The female has more greenish-yellow on the undersides that many other female orioles and is washed on the upperparts in gray, black and white.
The Scott's orioles prefer to remain in areas where yuccas are commonly found - on the desert-facing slopes of mountains and foothills. They live mainly in parts of Mexico, but breed in some of the Southwestern states - mainly New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas, although some travel as far north as Idaho or Montana for breeding.
Preferences in Food
These orioles search trees and flowers for insects and nectar and often become regular visitors at backyard hummingbird feeders to quench their thirst for sugar water.
The Sounds of a Scott's Oriole
This species has a lower, richer, and more bubbly sound than other orioles with fewer repeated notes than the Baltimore oriole.
The Bullock's Oriole
Named after an amateur English naturalist, William, Bullock, the Bullock's oriole once preferred the stately American elm tree (Ulmus americana) as its nesting site. Since the tree's decline due to the devastating Dutch elm disease, these orioles have come to favor deciduous woodlands and shade trees.
The male Bullock's orioles have orange cheeks and eyebrows and large white wing patches. The female has whitish underparts, and is washed in gray and orange.
The Sounds of a Bullock's Oriole
This species of oriole makes a disjointed jumbling of whistles, chucks, and harsh notes.
An Oriole Nest Full of Hungry Babies
Orioles of the Southern States and MexicoClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Audubon's Oriole
This species of oriole is a medium size songbird with a black hood and a yellowish body. The wings of the bird are black and it has a straight, pointed bill and a long, black tail. The size of the Audubon's oriole falls between the size of a sparrow and a robin.
This species is predominantly a Mexican bird that reaches the United States only in a limited area of south Texas. The Audubon's oriole is a secretive bird that prefers to live in vegetation that is denser than other oriole species.
Sounds of the Audubon's Oriole
Both the male and the female have a slow series of warbles and whistles that resemble the sounds made by a child learning to whistle. When voicing a sound of alarm the birds sing out a nasal "yee" sound.
The Streak-Backed Oriole
The male of this species has a deep orange head and chest with contrasting black lores and chin up to the upper breast. The upperparts are orange with heavy black streaks on the mantle and tail. The tail consists of black feathers with white tips. The female bird is very similar to the male but has slightly less rich coloring. They eat insects and other arthropods; nectar, and various fruits.
Although a rare occurrence, they have been known to visit California and Arizona. They are commonly found along the western edge of Mexico.
Sounds of the Streak-Backed Oriole
Both sexes of this species have a melodic warbling series of whistles that occasionally will include some "churr" notes. The male bird sings more often than the female and their common calls include mainly chatters, along with a sharp chit.
The Hooded Oriole
Hooded orioles have longer and more delicate bodies than other orioles. Their tales are long and rounded and their necks are long and their bill curves downward, more so that most orioles. The male is mostly deep orange but the color can range from a brilliant yellow to a flame orange. The female's crown and nape are grey-like olive-yellow color, and her upperparts are olive.
This species lives in open woodlands with scattered trees, including cottonwoods, willows, sycamores, or palm trees.
The Sounds of the Hooded Oriole
The song of the hooded oriole covers a wide frequency range and includes a quick series of clicks and warbles along with some chattering. They also try to mimic other species' songs. Their calls include fast chatter and a whistled "wheet," along with a hard "chit."
The Altamira Oriole
The Altamira oriole is the largest oriole in the United States. It is common in northeastern Mexico but didn't appear in the United States until 1939. Now, it is a common year-round resident in the native woods of the tip of southern Texas. Because it forages in dense trees, it may go unseen, but you can't miss its harsh fussing sounds. You may even first notice its oversized nest, which consists of a pouch up to two feet long hanging off the end of a branch.
The diet of this species consists mainly of insects and berries.
The Sounds of the Altamira Oriole
Their song consists of a series of clear, slow musical whistles. Their calls, however, are harsh whistles, a rasping chatter and a nasal-sounding "ike."
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Mike and Dorothy McKenney