A female Baltimore oriole offers a juicy grasshopper to her youngster, who will soon be on its own. The male’s bright orange and black colors prompted its name – the same colors as England’s Baltimore family crest.
Juvenile birds squawk for their parent’s attention; a new crop of insects are singing and devouring everything in sight; young frogs and toads cover the roads after dark and juvenile rabbits, mice, raccoons, opossums, fox and bobcats are learning how to find food and survive on their own. In the tight grip of summer’s embrace, life abounds.
With abundant rains, the insects have been very successful, and so too the animals that eat them, especially the birds. This year the orioles seem to be everywhere there are large trees to build their intricate nests. Two oriole species return to South Central Kansas every spring, the Baltimore and Orchard. A third species, Bullock’s oriole, is found in the western quarter of Kansas, sometimes venturing our way.
One of our more striking summer visitors, male Baltimore orioles’ distinctive orange and black colors flash even through dense foliage. The female is yellow and black, but her colors deepen as she ages. A little more subdued, but just as flashy, the male Orchard oriole is a brick red and black. Females are olive green to dull yellow, with a black mask and throat.
Orioles arrive in May, when insects and fruit are abundant enough to sustain them. A neotropic bird, they are here only three or four months, leaving in late July or August for warmer climes in South America. Soon after arriving, courtship begins with the male displaying his distinct orange back by hopping around the female and spreading his wings wide.
After pairing up, the male Baltimore oriole defends the nesting territory from intruders, while the female begins building the most complex nest of all North American nesting birds. Although the male may bring nesting materials, the biggest part of the job falls to the female. She collects long grass stems and other fibers, looping them over both sides of a small forked branch high in the tree and near the end of the branch. Through constant poking and prodding, the fibers become knotted and tangled.
Normally, she completes the nest in about a week if weather cooperates, adding and weaving more and more material until the mass takes a sock-like basket shape. A soft interior of feathers and downy fibers protect the eggs and young. Like many bird species, orioles use materials at hand, including twine, string, yarn, plastics. At the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, we’ve found several nests containing blue and red twine.
Young orioles fledge about two weeks after hatching. They won’t acquire the distinct adult plumage until the fall of their second year. Parents introduce them to favorite foods – insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars and flies; fruit and nectar. At KWEC, we observed both Baltimore and Orchard orioles in the garden among the flowers. In the tropics, orioles are pollinators of some plant species.
They are particular about fruit color, preferring dark-colored fruit and refusing green and yellow fruits even if ripe. This fondness for fruit can be used to attract orioles to yards. Orioles love grape jelly and oranges.
I watched a female introduce her youngster to our home feeder. After one taste, it ate almost all the jelly and has returned several times for more. I’ve watched for their distinct feeding behavior but haven’t observed it yet. Baltimore orioles sometimes feed by stabbing their closed bill into the fruit, opening their mouth to make a cut to drink the juice with brushy-tipped tongues.
If you have orioles that nest in your area, try placing some shredded newspaper in a tree for them to use next spring and see if it ends up in their nest. Newspaper is preferable to yarn or string, which can hang young birds. If you don’t have orioles in your area, visit KWEC and watch for them in the garden or along the nature trail. Time’s running out though, they’ll soon be headed back to their tropic home.