Out My Backdoor: a Favorite Oriole

"Orchird Oriole sits on a branch."
Orchard Oriole by Ty Ivey/Georgia Nature Photographers Association

By Terry W. Johnson

My favorite oriole is the orchard oriole. This might come as a surprise since it is North America’s smallest oriole. It is also not as flamboyantly colored as Georgia’s largest and better-known Baltimore oriole.

However, I find the orchard oriole beautiful, too. Also to its credit, it is the oriole most likely to nest in yards throughout the majority of the state. I am pleased to say that orchard orioles annually nest in my yard, providing me with to the chance to see and hear the bird on a regular basis throughout the nesting season.

Adult male orchard orioles sport a chestnut body while its head, throat, wings and tail are black. The female, whether immature or an adult, is olive-brown above as well as across its neck and body. Immature males are also olive-yellow; however, they have a black neck and throat.
The orchard oriole is much smaller than the Baltimore oriole, measuring 7-8 inches long, a wingspan of only 9.5 inches and weighing just 0.6-0.9 ounces. It is so small it’s often mistaken for a warbler.

Each April, I look forward to that special morning when I hear the first orchard oriole of the year. This year I heard my first on April 11. The orchard oriole’s song, which is most often sung by the male, is difficult to put into words. Perhaps it is best described as a rambling song that commences on high notes and ends in lower tones. One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with the song is to listen to a recording. In my case, since during the nesting season orchard orioles sing continuously from dawn to dusk, I have learned to recognize it.

Unfortunately, the orchard oriole spends the majority of its life on wintering grounds that extend southward from southern Mexico, through Central America and into Columbia and Venezuela. We Georgians only get to enjoy the bird it from April into August. However, orchard orioles cease calling when the nesting season ends, usually by mid-June.

The orchard oriole’s name is traced to early in our country’s history, when the bird often nested in orchards planted on small family farms. Sadly, most of these farms have disappeared; however, we are fortunate that the orchard oriole often still nests near our homes. (It was once referred to as the basket bird and orchard starling.) The bird also likes to nest near hardwood trees that rim grassy fields, reservoirs and rivers, as well as in areas featuring large, scattered trees such as parks and yards.

The trees often used as nesting sites includes pear, sweetgum, persimmon and yellow poplar.

While they often nest alone, they will from time to time nest in small groups. For reasons that are not fully understood, orchard orioles frequently nest in close proximity to eastern kingbirds nests. Sometimes, eastern kingbird and orchard oriole nests are in the same tree. Some ornithologists theorize that nesting orioles benefit from this because kingbirds aggressively defend their nesting territories from would-be predators. Some studies have shown a direct correlation between eastern kingbird and orchard population fluctuations, which seems to corroborate this theory. When kingbird populations are high, so are populations of orchard orioles and vice versa.

The orchard oriole nest is something to behold. The bird’s pendulous nests measure 3.4-4 inches in diameter and 2.25-3 inches deep. These amazing structures can be best described as a thin-walled basket. The female builds them using a variety of grasses and other plant material, including Spanish moss. All is held together with blades of grass (often green ones).The famous ornithologist Alexander Wilson once noted that one of the orchard oriole nests he examined contained a 13-inch blade of grass which the female had woven through her nest 34 times.

The female lines the nest with plant down and cotton. Orchard oriole nests are usually built in the fork of a small branch anywhere from 4 to 70 feet above the ground.

Both male and female orchard orioles feed their young, which fledge in 11-14 days after hatching.

Common grackles and other avian predators often raid nests and eat the eggs and young. If that isn’t bad enough, orchard oriole nests are frequently parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds.  Studies have found that oriole nests where cowbirds have laid left their eggs fledge only half as many young as nests without cowbird eggs.

The orchard oriole has a varied diet. When the bird first arrives in the spring it often dines on flowers and blossoms on fruit trees. However, most of its diet is made up of spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other invertebrates. The oriole is especially fond of wasps. It is interesting to note that orchard orioles have also been observed eating insect that plague corn. At times it also consumes berries and fruits, including blueberries. I have even seen orioles dining on Cherokee plums.

This small oriole also consumes nectar produced by trumpet creeper flowers. But since the trumpet creeper has such long funnel-shaped flowers, orchard orioles have a difficult time reaching the nectar at the bottom of the blooms. The birds solve this problem by cutting a slit running lengthwise down trumpet creeper blooms just above the base of the flowers. This enables the bird to stick its bill through the slit and dine on the sugary nectar found at the base of the flower. I have watched this fascinating feeding behavior in my yard and can attest it is something to behold.

The orchard oriole is not what you would call a feeder bird—a bird that routinely feeds at feeders--however, it will visit feeders. It most often dines at hummingbird feeders equipped with perches and feeding portals large enough to accommodate its bill.

Although I have never seen an orchard oriole feeding at one of my hummingbird feeders, I have seen them dining on suet. Like many other birds, they seem to prefer suet laced with peanut butter. Although some homeowners are successful feeding these tiny orioles grape jelly and orange and apple slices, I have not been so lucky.

Most of the orioles I see at my bird feeding/watering stations come to visit the birdbath. Orchard orioles use my birdbaths from spring until they leave in summer.

As I am writing this column, orchard oriole songs are floating through a window near my computer. Being able to see and listen to orchard orioles make me realize how lucky I am to have one or more pairs of them living nearby. If orchard orioles are not nesting in your yard, it is my hope that you will one day have the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful birds around your home, too.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”