An orchard oriole perches on a feeder. Photo by Steve Bailey.
Orioles of Illinois: They build hanging pouch nests, visit backyard feeders and add color to springtime
Spring has surely arrived in Illinois when the male Baltimore oriole returns to sing his melodious notes and utter his insistent chattering in the trees. Right behind him is the male orchard oriole, a smaller, different-hued oriole, often less conspicuous than its cousin.
Even casual bird watchers have a good chance of seeing an oriole in spring and summer. Between 1986 and 1991, the Baltimore oriole was found in every county during the summer, according to the Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas. So, too, was the orchard oriole, though it was less common. Interestingly, the orchard once was more common than the Baltimore in the southern half of the state. But as its favorite habitat, orchards, disappeared, its numbers declined. However, the orchard has expanded its range northward giving residents statewide the chance to compare these brightly colored blackbirds and observe their fascinating behaviors.
Likely the more familiar oriole is the Baltimore, which is often heard before seen. “Tea, deer, deer, deer,” the oriole sings from atop a cottonwood, one of its favorite trees. The melodic notes, with the first pitch the highest, ring out at the edge of deciduous woods and in yards and parks. The female also sings, but shorter songs, and typically to duet with her mate. The Baltimore oriole arrives in southern Illinois by mid- to late-April. By early May, it’s singing all over the state. Some will continue flying farther north to nest, but many remain in Illinois to raise a family. In fall, they fly south to Florida, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America for the winter.
The adult Baltimore male is a study in contrasts. It has a black hood and wings with white wing patches, all complemented by the bright orange underparts and rump. The outer tail is orange and the central tail feathers are black. The adult female has a somewhat dusky-colored head, cheek and upperparts, with yellow, not orange, underparts. Some orange shading appears beneath its throat and on its breast, a good clue that it’s a female Baltimore oriole and not a female orchard oriole, which has no orange and is mostly a lemon yellow. Just to make matters a bit confusing, the Baltimore oriole’s western counterpart, the Bullock’s oriole, is a rare vagrant to Illinois. They were once considered the same species and have been known to hybridize. The Bullock’s has huge, white wing patches compared with the thinner white wing bars of the Baltimore oriole. It also has a black and orange face pattern, compared with the Baltimore’s black hooded appearance. A Bullock’s oriole photographed on April 23, 2021 in Morgan County was only the fifth record of the species in Illinois.
The orchard oriole is about an inch shorter than the Baltimore. It, too, has a black hood. The real clue to the orchard’s identity is its brick red or chestnut underparts where the Baltimore’s is bright orange. The female orchard is lemon yellow with white wing patches on darkish wings. First-year male orchard orioles are fun to find. They look rather unkempt wearing a partial female’s plumage with some black on the throat. The male sings a short series of melodic notes combined with chatters and gives an abrupt “chuck” call as well as some chatters. The female orchard oriole also sings. A recent study shows she has her distinct song, separate from the male’s. Observers may be able to separate male and female songs when the birds are on their breeding territories.
The orchard oriole arrives in Illinois a little later than the Baltimore oriole. It also leaves for its wintering grounds a little earlier than the Baltimore oriole does. Orchard orioles winter as far south as northern Columbia and northern Venezuela.
Habitat often can help identify species, but Baltimore and orchard orioles both can be found in forest edges, especially near rivers and creeks, and in wooded parks and yards with trees. The orchard, however, also can be found in semi-open habitats with few trees. Some spots in northern Illinois where orchard orioles have bred include Moraine Hills State Park and Illinois Beach State Park. Orchard orioles also are very common in spring and summer along the levees at Union County State Fish and Wildlife Area in southern Illinois.
Both oriole species weave pendulous nests and hang them from branches. Biologists speculate the behavior helps keep eggs and young safe from predators. The Baltimore weaves a nest of twine, horse hair, grasses, grapevine bark and human-made fibers such as yarn and fishing line. Biologists differ on whether it’s a good idea to lay out 8-inch strips of single-ply yarn as nesting material for Baltimore orioles; but that may be better than the cellophane they’ve been known to use. The Baltimore female lays 4 or 5 eggs. Adults take turns incubating them for 11 to 14 days and then feed them for about 11 to14 days in the nest until they hatch.
The orchard oriole weaves similar materials to create a nest as does the Baltimore, but it also will use a coniferous as well as deciduous tree. She lays 4 or 5 eggs and incubates them for 12 to 14 days. The male brings food to the female while she’s on eggs, then helps her feed them. The young leave the nest 11 to 14 days after hatching. Biologists have discovered that orchard orioles often nest close to or in the same tree as the eastern kingbird. They theorize that the aggressive kingbird may serve as a protector for the oriole.
Attracting both oriole species in spring can be fairly easy. Both sip nectar from hummingbird feeders and will eat oranges and grape jelly put out by humans. During migration on the right day, the lucky backyard bird feeder may see a potpourri of orioles in various plumages, a female orchard and a male Baltimore, perhaps, with a first-year male orchard wearing its black bib. That’s when you can have fun trying to separate the species out by sex and age.
Orioles consume plenty of insects and help keep pest species, such as gypsy moth caterpillars, in check. When young are born, the adults don’t bring them jelly or orange pieces; they feed them copious amounts of insects, such as caterpillars as well as spiders, which provide protein. After the young fledge, the adults may bring them to bird feeders. But young also learn in late summer and fall to take nectar from flowers such as the trumpet creeper, and to feast on berries such as mulberries and choke cherries.
By early September, most of the orioles in Illinois have left for warmer climates where they can find plentiful insects. But they’ll be back in the spring, dazzling Illinois with their colorful plumage, songs and antics.
Sheryl DeVore writes environment and nature pieces for regional and national publications and has had several books published, including “Birds of Illinois” co-authored with her husband, Steven D. Bailey.