Birds

10 Fun Facts About the Baltimore Oriole

From their brief taxonomic hiatus to their intense sugar cravings, there’s a lot to know about these brilliant birds

Ask anyone what color a Baltimore Oriole is, and chances are good they'll know. The mascot and namesake of Maryland's professional baseball team, the oriole's striking orange-and-black plumage makes it one of our most recognizable—and beloved—North American species. But there's a lot more to know about this neotropical migrant than the hue of its feathers. Here are 10 more facts about the Baltimore Oriole. 

1.) The Baltimore Oriole is a member of the New World Orioles genus Icterus, which includes about 30 other species. Eight of these species occupy different regions of North America, and not without some overlap. During summer, the Baltimore Oriole is widespread in states east of the Rockies, and its habitat stretches up into southern Canada.

2.) Most Baltimore Orioles spend their winters basking in sunny climes from southern Mexico to northwestern South America or on islands in the Caribbean. Some winter along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere in the southeastern United States. Every April and May, they return to their breeding grounds, where males try to assert their dominance over a 2-3 acre plot of land and wait for females to arrive. 

3.) Like many English language words, “oriole” has Latin roots. It comes from aureolus, Latin for “golden.” The name was first applied to a completely unrelated family, the Old World Orioles, which can look similar. (The Baltimore Oriole and its kin belong to the blackbird family.)

The English naturalist Mark Catesby, who visited eastern North America for several years in the early 1700s, reported that people in Virginia and Maryland called this species "the Baltimore-Bird" because males wore orange and black: the heraldic colors of Lord Baltimore, patron of the Maryland colony. The name "Oriole" wasn't applied to these birds until later.

4.) Maryland has called the Baltimore Oriole its state bird since 1947, and has given it special protections since 1882—36 years before congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. 

5.) While male Baltimores sport the flashy colors the species is known for, females range from olive-brown on their heads to yellow-orange toward their bellies. Young Baltimore males, on the other hand, don’t achieve their Halloween look until they become about a year old. From that point on, though, their orange feathers grow deeper and more distinct. 

6.) If you see an oriole that looks decidedly more red than orange—and it's not an Orchard Oriole—your eyes aren't deceiving you. Though rare, this aberrant feather pigmentation has been documented multiple times in the past three decades, and it's believed to be related to the consumption of berries produced by non-native honeysuckle plants imported to the US in the mid-20th century. 

Female Baltimore Oriole at her nest. Photo: Don Johnston/Alamy

7.) The Baltimore Oriole’s basket-like hanging nest is one of the great wonders of the avian world. Over five to eight days, females weave together whatever strong fibers they can find—grass, weeds, animal hair, string—until the nest is completed. The nests usually hang about 30 feet off the ground and are located on the outer reaches of heavy branches, but they can sometimes be found suspended from a crook. Oriole nests are so sturdy that the birds may reuse them after returning from their winter grounds months later. 

8.) While orioles have a prodigious appetite for insects, they also possess a serious sweet tooth (beak?). One of the most surefire ways to attract a Baltimore to your backyard is to leave out a few orange slices, but other sweet fruits, a dollop of grape jelly, or even a hummingbird feeder will also do the trick. 

Baltimore Oriole. Photo: Lorraine Minns/Audubon Photography Awards

9.) When eating fruits and berries, Baltimore Orioles sometimes practice an unusual eating method called gaping: After inserting their beak into whatever they are eating, they spread their beak out to create a tunnel of sorts and use their tongues to lap up the juices. 

10.) From 1973 to 1995, the Baltimore Oriole didn’t exist—on paper, that is. In 1973, a committee of the American Ornithologists' Union noted frequent interbreeding between Baltimores and their western counterparts, Bullock's Orioles. So the organization combined the two into one species called Northern Oriole. But further studies showed that the Bullock’s and the Baltimore Oriole aren’t so similar: the Baltimore prefers wetter habitats and has its own song, in addition to just looking different. Later research showed that the two species didn’t interbreed as much as once thought, either. Eventually, after 22 years, the Union canned the Northern Oriole designation and brought back Bullock’s and Baltimore.   

(Bonus fact: A completely unrelated bird, the warbler known as the Common Yellowthroat, was originally called the "Maryland Yellowthroat," and that name persisted in many books as late as the 1950s. So in the 1970s, after losing both the Maryland Yellowthroat and (temporarily) the Baltimore Oriole, some birdwatchers in Baltimore felt more than a little jilted!) 

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