Bird Watcher's General Store

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Orchard Orioles Around

Dear Bird Folks:

Every spring we get tons of Baltimore Orioles in our yard. This year, much to our surprise, we also have, what my books says are Orchard Orioles. I have never seen them before. Are they rare and will they stay?

– Bryan, Yarmouthport


Hy Bryan,

Funky way to spell your name. That’s pretty hip for someone from Yarmouthport. Are you sure you aren’t from Wellfleet? You are lucky to have Orchard Orioles in your yard. No, they are not rare around here, but they are not real common either. It seems to be a banner year for them. I’m not sure why. Either there are more orioles around or perhaps, after such a long winter, more people are outside looking at birds. Everybody has had enough of watching TV. Well, everyone except for my kids They get the shakes if the cable ever goes out.

Of North America’s nine species of orioles, Orchard Orioles are fairly unique. They are our smallest oriole, only about the size of a Bluebird. The male orchard is our only male oriole that is not colored brilliant orange or yellow. Orchard males are a dark rust or chestnut, making them more handsome and less flashing than the others.

The female Orchard Orioles, on the other hand, create plenty of headaches for backyard bird watchers. Not looking at all like the distinctive males, the females (and the young males) are a drab yellowish green. They Look more like a female tanager than an oriole. The female Orchard Oriole is responsible for most of our May “mystery bird” questions. In fact, questions about identifying female Orchard Orioles ranks third just below, “What is the formula for hummingbird food?” and, “How do you stay so young looking?”

Spending most of the year in Central and South America, Orchard Orioles start arriving here in May with all of the other migrants from the tropics. After a brief courtship, the couples quickly get down to the business of building a nest and sitting on eggs. By June the young birds have hatched and the parents are busy feeding them bug after bug after bug. The parents must find, catch and deliver live food to the chicks every five minutes from sun up to sun down. Like their name implies, Orchard Orioles are a great benefit to fruit growers by eating large amounts of harmful insects. It is too bad that the growers don’t consider the birds when they are spraying everything with pesticides.

If provided with a continuos supply of food, the young birds are able to progress from the egg to being full grown flying birds in an amazing two weeks. Once the new birds are flying, adult Orchard Orioles have another unique behavior. Like the couple that stays together for the sake of the children, the parents go their separate ways soon after the kids leave the nest. However, the Orchard Oriole couples don’t play the blame game. Each adult willingly agrees to take half the brood with them upon separation. So, if there are four fledglings, the male will take two while the female raises the other two. I’m not sure what happens if there is an odd number of nestlings. Perhaps there is a spinster aunt from the city who helps out with the extra bird.

The answer to the second part of your question Bryan is yes, they will stay, but not for very long. Of all of the Cape’s nesting birds, Orchard Orioles are probably here for the least amount of time. By mid summer they have had enough of Cape Cod and are already working their way back south. In just ten short weeks they have moved here, built a nest, raised a family and are gone by the end of July. I guess someone must have tipped them off what it is like around here in August.