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Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole
Orchard Oriole (adult male)
Photo by: 
Theresa Havens

Early in one’s birding career, “mystery birds” are often encountered. What is it? A warbler? A tanager? Some kind of new species never before encountered?

While it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever discover a new species, we occasionally come across an individual bird that makes us say, “what have we here?” In such situations, it’s important to remember to get as good a look as possible making mental notes of relative size, coloring, wing bars, bill shape and habitat in which the bird is found — before reaching for your field guide. I was even lucky enough to get a photo. Still, the identification eluded me.

That’s when it helps to have friends who are veteran birders. “That’s a first summer Orchard Oriole,” came the response. Sure enough, the yellowish color, black throat patch and whitish wing bars all added up.

Our smallest oriole, the Orchard Oriole ( Icterus spurius ) is a member of the icterid family which includes all blackbirds, meadowlarks and grackles. Although not as flashy or numerous as its cousin the Baltimore Oriole, the smaller Orchard Oriole, at 6-7 inches, is always a summer treat to see and hear.

You’ll find this summer visitor around shade trees in parks and rural gardens and open country with scattered trees, often near lakes and streams. Yes, even in old or- chards. The Orchard Oriole seems to prefer habitats with sparse human populations such as parks and pastures. The accompanying photo was taken at Little Bean Marsh Conservation Area.

The adult male has a rusty or chestnut colored body and a black head and back, a short, sharp bill and white wing bars. The female is all olive-yellowish and also has white wing bars. Female Baltimore Orioles are sometimes confused with female Orchard Orioles but the latter is usually more olive overall. Don’t let the immature male fool you however, like he did this birder.

They eat insects, fruits, small seeds and nectar. For nesting, they prefer cottonwood trees, willows and red cedar. Their nest, a carefully woven pouch of fibers and grass, is generally suspended from the forked branch of a tree or bush. Unfortunately, Orchard Oriole nests are commonly parasitized by cowbirds.

The song is a loud jumble of lively and rich whis- tling, usually with a zheeeer at or near the end. The distinctive song generally starts with two or three high- pitched notes.

Orchard Orioles range east of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Fairly common but declining overall, the Orchard Oriole is a rather late spring migrant. See them while you can. They head back south quickly and may return to their wintering grounds in Central America, Colombia and Venezuela as early as late July or August.

By Rick Jordahl