Baltimore Oriole

Icterus galbula

Baltimore Oriole - Male
Baltimore Oriole - Male. - Photo © Dan Pancamo

Named for the colorful coat of arms carried by Lord Baltimore in the 17th century, the Baltimore oriole is a brilliantly colored songbird welcome in many backyards. Once combined with its western counterpart as a single species, the northern oriole, the Baltimore oriole today is recognized as a distinct species and is the state bird of Maryland.

Common Name: Baltimore Oriole, Northern Oriole

Scientific Name: Icterus galbula

Scientific Family: Icteridae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Straight, sharply pointed, blue-gray, may appear silver or white in bright light
  • Size: 7.5-8.5 inches long with 12-inch wingspan, round head
  • Colors: Black, orange, yellow, white, olive-brown
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a black hood, back and throat over bold yellow-orange underparts and rump. The yellow-orange color extends onto the shoulder in a thick wedge over black wings. Wings have a white bar and white feather edging. The black tail has yellow or orange underneath. Instead of black, females show olive-brown coloration and more mottling. Females are more likely to have lighter yellow coloration where the males show orange, and females have two white wing bars. As females age, their coloration becomes darker, but they do not show as distinct of a hood as males. For both genders, the eyes are black and the legs and feet are blackish-gray.

    Juveniles look similar to adult females, and young males will appear mottled as they mature into their adult plumage when they are just over a year old.

    Species is monotypic.

    Foods: Insects, berries, fruit, caterpillars, spiders, nectar (See: Frugivorous)
    Also see Feeding Orioles for more information.

    Habitat and Migration:

    Baltimore orioles are popular spring and summer birds in open deciduous forests and riparian areas in the eastern United States as well as in suburban parks, orchards and backyards.

    Populations extend as far west as the Great Plains and eastern Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as the southern half of eastern Canadian provinces. In the fall and winter, Baltimore orioles migrate to Central and South America. Limited populations spend winters in Florida, along the edge of the southeastern United States and along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

    Vocalizations:

    Baltimore orioles have a distinctive two-pitch undulating slow warble, though the speed of the song may change during one call. Other calls include high chips and chirps as well as a rapid dry rattle.

    Behavior:

    These orioles can be very shy, solitary birds for most of the year, though after the nesting season they are likely to appear in pairs or small mixed flocks, particularly while foraging in the fall and winter. They feed in shrubs, bushes and trees, hunting for insects or picking through flowers. In the backyard, they prefer feeding stations away from the busiest areas, preferably in a shaded area near secure shelter.

    Reproduction:

    Baltimore orioles are monogamous birds that pair together after elaborate courtship rituals that include tail and wing spread displays and bowing to show off plumage colors.

    Wing quivering is often part of these displays as well. The nest is a dangling pouch woven from thin plant fibers, animal fur, yarn, string and hair, and lined with grass or wool. The female builds the nest, and it is positioned 25-35 feet above the ground, though some can be found much higher. Almost all Baltimore oriole nests are found in deciduous trees.

    A mated pair will produce one brood of 3-7 oval-shaped, gray-white or pale blue eggs per year. The eggs show dark blackish-brown blotches or squiggles at the large end. The female oriole will incubate the eggs for 12-14 days. Both parents feed the altricial young for an additional 12-14 days until the young birds can leave the nest.

    Where the Baltimore oriole’s range overlaps with the Bullock’s oriole, interbreeding and hybridization is common.

    These birds are occasional hosts to brown-headed cowbird eggs, but are usually able to recognize the unwanted egg and remove it from their nest.

    Attracting Baltimore Orioles:

    Though shy, Baltimore orioles will readily come to backyards that provide their favorite foods, including grape jelly, orange halves, nectar and suet. Birders should avoid spraying pesticides that can eliminate insects as a food source, and hanging hair or string sections can help attract orioles to nest nearby. Adding a fruit tree to the yard is another way to help attract these birds, particularly with cherries or mulberries.

    See How to Attract Orioles for more information.

    Conservation:

    While these orioles are not threatened or endangered, their populations are slowly declining. Habitat loss, particularly in their winter range, is a distinct problem, but supporting shade-grown coffee and bird-friendly chocolate can help preserve that habitat. Overuse of insecticides in fruit plantations is another problem, both because the insect populations are essential to orioles' diets and pesticides on fruit could lead to inadvertent poisoning. In some areas, these birds may be considered a pest in fruit plantations and could be persecuted.

    Similar Birds:

    • Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
    • Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)
    • Audubon’s Oriole (Icterus graduacauda)
    • Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisorum)
    • Venezuelan Troupial (Icterus icterus)
    • American Robin (Turdus migratorius)