The cardinal-sized bird was only 10 yards away, but it was backlit so even with binoculars I couldn't pick up any color. In silhouette, it was much trimmer than a cardinal, and its bill was long and pointed. Then I noticed several strands of nesting material hanging from its bill. At that point the bird flew to the dainty outer branches of a graceful elm and disappeared. The bird just seemed to vanish into a cluster of leaves. I scanned the area with binoculars and saw that within that bunch of leaves was a hanging basket composed of tightly woven plant fibers -- an oriole nest.
When the bird finally emerged from the nest, it was in better light, and I recognized the female Baltimore oriole. Her pale yellow-orange belly and light wing bars were obvious. Then almost on cue, the male flew in, perched nearby, and sang. His flute-like whistles were unmistakable.
Territorial: I watched the male for several minutes as he sang to let his neighbors know that this was his territory and his mate. His black hood, orange body, and white wing bars made an impressive visual display. In the sunlight, his flame-colored body almost seemed to glow. Male Baltimore orioles rival scarlet tanagers, painted buntings, and Blackburnian warblers as the most strikingly colored birds in America.
Orioles eat fruit, caterpillars, spiders, insects, and nectar. And they sometimes visit hummingbird feeders. However, the acrobatic balancing act that's required to use hummingbird feeders makes getting a free meal difficult. To attract orioles to the neighborhood, add an oriole feeder to your feeding station. The nectar recipe is the same as for hummingbirds: one part sugar to four parts boiling water, mix, and chill.
If you're uncertain that orioles deserve their own feeder, reconsider their diet. Among their favorite foods are hairy caterpillars, such as tent caterpillars, fall webworms, and even gypsy moth caterpillars. Any natural enemy of these pests deserves help.
Attraction: Another effective way to attract orioles is to nail orange halves to platform feeders and dead branches. They love both the pulp and juice. The best oriole food, however, is grape jelly. Just put a spoonful in a small dish on a tray feeder. Orchard orioles, catbirds, and Carolina wrens love grape jelly, too. Don't be surprised if you go through several jars of jelly in the course of the spring and summer. Fortunately jelly-loving birds aren't picky, so buy the cheapest generic brands you can find.
A final favor we can do for orioles is to provide nesting material. Fill a suet basket with eight- to 12-inch strands of string, twine, or horse hair.
The female oriole takes four to eight days to weave the nest, which she suspends from the fine outer branches of tall shade trees. This delicate location makes it difficult for larger predators to reach the nest.
Cowbird parasitism is probably more of a threat to orioles than predation. Each morning female cowbirds watch and wait for an opportunity to drop an egg in an unattended nest. Then the orioles raise the cowbird as their own.
When the nest is complete, it cradles a clutch of four or five eggs. The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks and then both parents share the duties of raising the brood. The young leave the nest when they're about two weeks old. Unlike many local birds, orioles raise only a single brood each year. Baltimore orioles winter throughout most of Central America, from Mexico to northern South America.
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