On a cloudy and cool Sunday afternoon, the last day of April, I spotted a lone female Baltimore oriole at my bird feeder. It was taking a few sips of sugar water from the hummingbird feeder.
Unlike many other songbirds in the east that eat seeds, the diet of the Baltimore oriole is strictly devoted to nectar, berries, bugs, and beetles, and other small invertebrates, including grasshoppers and caterpillars. Maybe even an occasional snail or spider.
The poor thing must have been hungry. After a winter spent feeding among the summery open woodlands, gardens, and shade-grown coffee plantations of South America or Mexico, the little bird has just endured a long winged migration through harsh storms and biting cold winds to land along the forest’s edge near New York Harbor. What would cause an oriole to leave somewhere hot and sunny to be someplace shivery and squally?
Late April is usually when the first migrants of orioles start to return to New York Harbor. Frequently, if everything is timed out perfectly, the birds arrive just as many flowering fruit trees, such as cherries, pears, plums, and apples come into bloom.
Baltimore orioles fly all the way from the tropics to land around New York Harbor every spring to raise a family. This common warm-weather resident leaves the warmth of the tropics where food resources are competitive, predators are numerous, and diseases and parasites are abundant, to take advantage of burgeoning insect populations, budding plants and fruits, and an abundance of nesting locations from wide open parklands including Central Park and Prospect Park to many open woods and trees in neighboring towns. A good place to lay and incubate 3 to 7 eggs.
Although Baltimore orioles are frequent summer renters around New York Harbor, this brightly colored songbird is often heard, but not seen by people, since the birds prefer to nest and feed high up in tall deciduous trees. And what a nest they make! Look up now and then to see if you can discover a peculiar nest that is a tightly woven six-inch long pouch-like structure hanging from a tree made from grasses, string, plant fibers, and moss. A true avian architectural masterpiece.
Do you want to try to attract a few migrating Baltimore orioles to your backyard this May? Try putting out an orange out in the open. Cut it in half so the insides are up. You can also offer grape jelly. Orioles seem to love grape jelly and will eat it daily. Don't make the jelly pile too deep though.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest recorded Baltimore oriole was over 12 years old when it was caught and killed by a raptor in Minnesota. Baltimore Orioles got their name from their bold orange-and-black plumage: they sport the same colors as the heraldic crest of England’s Baltimore family (who also gave their name to Maryland’s largest city).