Orioles are among the region’s most colorful birds

Photo by Michael McGough from Pixabay • The Baltimore oriole is a bird with a taste for sweets. Citrus fruits, grape jelly and even specialty feeders for dispensing sugar water are ways to draw these birds closer. Otherwise, they can be difficult to observe as they prefer to spend their time in the tops of tall trees.

The Baltimore oriole would stand out among North American birds even without its colorful plumage and its long association with the city of Baltimore and its affiliated major league baseball team.

For instance, few other birds can match the Baltimore oriole for the sheer elaborate nature of the woven nest these birds construct for the purpose of sheltering eggs and young. The nests resemble hanging baskets that the female oriole weaves from a variety of collected strips of grass. The lining inside is even more elaborate and features soft materials such as plant down, feathers or even wool that can insulate and cushion the eggs. The nest itself is anchored securely in the fork of a tree branch. 

A family of tropical birds known as oropendolas are native to Central America, with some ranging as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. Some of their fantastic hanging nests put those constructed by Baltimore orioles to shame. Not surprisingly, orioles and oropendolas are closely related and claim kinship among the extensive family of New World blackbirds. Many species of oropendolas also nest in colonies, which makes their intricate nests even more prominent.

Orioles also have a tendency to indulge a sweet tooth or, I suppose, a sweet beak in their case. Slices of citrus fruits, as well as specially designed feeders to suit their size and shape can offer these birds sugar water that they will sip as eagerly as any hummingbird. Dispensers of grape jelly can also be set out to lure these birds.

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

Baltimore orioles have been changing their usual habits almost from the time the first Europeans arrived in North America. Instead of migrating south each fall, more of these birds are staying behind at some northern locations, especially along the Atlantic Coast, and successfully overwintering, often at backyard feeders.

For many year s, I have helped unwittingly perpetuate the myth that the oriole derived its common name from an association with history’s first Lord Baltimore, also known as George Calvert, Baron Baltimore. 

As it turns out, the bird and the English nobleman may not be as closely affiliated with each other as popular lore would have us believe. According to an article published by Hervey Brackbill in 1949 in the Wilson Bulletin, the origins of the Baltimore oriole’s vernacular, or common, name is not authentically tied to Lord Baltimore.

George Calvert by the artist Daniël Mijtens. In this portrait, the family colors of black and orange are clearly visible.

On a side note, there should be a bird named “Brackbill,” just because that seems a ready-made term for describing some sort of odd bird. Alas, I can’t find any evidence that Mr. Brackbill ever had a bird named after him. 

In summarizing the myth of the man and the bird, the article states that Calvert visited Chesapeake Bay in 1628. He saw the oriole and, impressed with the bird’s orange and black plumage, adopted those colors as his own, incorporating them into his family’s coat of arms. 

The historic record turns up several inaccuracies with this charming but perhaps misleading tale. First and foremost, the Calvert family coat of arms of gold (orange) and black had already been established before the first Lord Baltimore ever visited the New World. A statement regarding the coat of arms was published in England in 1622, six years prior to Calvert’s visit to the Chesapeake Bay.

Calvert did eventually (in 1629) visit the Chesapeake Bay, but there’s no actual account of his ever observing the bird that we know as a Baltimore oriole. Calvert’s son, the second Lord Baltimore, never ventured to the New World.

The famous Carl Linnaeus is often given credit for bestowing the common name on the oriole, but he was apparently a bit late to the game. The Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist and physician famous for his binomial nomenclature, which is the basis for the modern system of naming organisms, first gave the bird the scientific name of Coracias Galbula in  1758. In 1766, with the publication of an updated version of his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole the scientific name Oriolus Baltimore, or more simply “the oriole of Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, credit does not really belong to Linnaeus. A century before Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole its enduring name, colonists in America were calling the bird in question “the Baltimore bird.”

The famous naturalist, writer and artist Mark Catesby referred to the bird as “the Baltimore bird.” Catesby, who lived from 1683 to 1749, was famous for his studies of the flora and fauna of the New World. Catesby also was the first to refer to the bird as an oriole because he was reminded of the unrelated orioles of the Old World. He gave the bird its “icterus” designation that today is used to describe an array of New World blackbirds, orioles, and other related birds. By the time people began to suspect the New World orioles were not at all like their Old World counterparts, Catesby’s classification stuck.

So, ordinary colonists, not noblemen, naturalists or ornithologists, actually provided the name “Baltimore bird,” but due to a mistake on the part of the experts who should have known better, the erroneous “oriole” was also attached to the bird’s name.

All in all, I like the name oriole. Baltimore blackbird, while it does have some alliteration and is more scientifically accurate, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 

The region is home during the summer to another oriole, the smaller orchard oriole. Other New World orioles include Audubon’s oriole, orange oriole, Altamira oriole, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole and white-edged oriole. 

Bullock’s oriole is the western counterpart to the Baltimore oriole.  The two birds were once considered the same species and lumped together under the unimaginative name of Northern oriole. I got the pleasure of observing many Bullock’s orioles during a May visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2008.

Some of the Old World orioles, the birds with the rightful claim to be “orioles,” include the brown oriole, green oriole, white-lored oriole, Eurasian golden oriole, green-headed oriole,  black oriole, maroon oriole and silver oriole. The Old World orioles are also closely related to the figbirds of Indonesia and Australia and the pitohuis of New Guinea. 

Incidentally, I have tried the trick of offering orange slices, as well as grape jelly, to attract Baltimore orioles to my yard. Unfortunately, this oriole remains definitely “hit or miss” at my home on Simerly Creek Road. I’ve only ever observed them at my home during spring and fall migration. Thanks to gray catbirds, the orange slices didn’t go to waste, and the ants loved the grape jelly. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Baltimore oriole in tall trees at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee.

To find orioles, keep your gaze directed upward. Larry McDaniel with Tri-Cities Young Naturalists was recently asked on Facebook whether there are orioles in the area. He gave a good answer, so I’ve borrowed it. He explained that while orioles do nest in the region, they are surprisingly hard to spot high up in the thick foliage of tall trees.

Some good locations to look for Baltimore orioles are the waterfront along Winged Deer Park in Johnson City and in tall trees around the lake at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport.

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