If my mail is any indication, this has been the summer of the Baltimore oriole. Though I've often mentioned that orioles drink the same nectar we put out for hummingbirds (one part sugar, four parts water), coaxing them to feeders is often a challenge. In fact, I've still never seen an oriole at a nectar feeder in my own back yard. But back in May, while visiting Presque Isle State Park in northwest Pennsylvania, I watched for more than an hour while at least four orioles took turns using a nectar feeder. It was quite a sight, and though I've seen many photos of orioles drinking nectar, I felt satisfied after having seen it myself.
Many readers reported similar experiences this summer. I've heard from more than a dozen people who have had orioles come to feeders for the first time. Janet Hinrichsen of Goodfield, Illinois reports that, "... orioles and hummers share the same feeder, which is located just inches from my kitchen table."
Howard Gwinn of Painesville, Ohio, tells a story that should encourage oriole lovers everywhere. "This year," he wrote, "we had an unusual number of Baltimore orioles. I put nectar in two feeders, but there were so many orioles I had to install two chick watering dishes filled with nectar. After the young left the nest, my orioles were drinking two pints of nectar a day!"
And Duane Pagenkpopf of Brewster, Ohio, has discovered the secret of grape jelly. After putting out a plate of grape jelly with orange slices a few years ago, he's had phenomenal success. "In 2000," he writes, "we went through six quarts of jelly; last year, we used nine quarts. When the young started to visit, it was unreal. We had six or seven pairs, plus their young!"
(FYI: Catbirds, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, and Carolina wrens also love grape jelly. Buy the cheapest, generic jelly on the shelf. Save the Smucker's for the family.)
Curiously, the purpose of most of the recent oriole mail was not to just point out oriole's fondness for nectar and jelly. Many also asked about orioles' migratory habits because by mid-July they seemed to vanish.
Get an early start
Unlike most migratory birds, which head south in September and October, Baltimore orioles get an early start. After the young leave the nest, adult orioles stop singing and become surprisingly inconspicuous. They may continue to visit feeders until mid July, but then, triggered by shorter days, fall restlessness sets in, and the southbound journey begins. Though a few orioles may linger into the fall, it's normal to notice their absence in mid summer.
Like many song birds, Baltimore orioles migrate at night; they typically leave at dusk and fall out the following morning. One reason for this schedule is that night flights are freer of predators than day trips.
Baltimore orioles winter throughout Central America, from southern Mexico to northern South America. Some also winter in Florida, Cuba, and southern California. Look for them to return next spring in late April.
In addition to nectar and grape jelly, orioles also eat sliced oranges and bananas at feeders.
Dealing with insects
Another question I get several times each week this time of year is how to deal with ants, bees, and wasps at hummingbird feeders.
Ants are easy. Most feeders come equipped with a built-in ant guard. Just fill it with soapy water, and ants can't cross it. If your nectar feeder doesn't have a built-in ant guard, buy one that fits between the feeder and its hanger at any garden center, wild bird store, or nature center. Another option is to suspend the feeder from 10-pound monofilament fishing line, which is just too fine for ants to climb.
Hungry bees and wasps pose a more vexing problem. Use Q-Tips to "paint" feeder ports with Avon Skin-So-Soft, which is an effective insect repellent. Or look for Aspects hummingbird feeders equipped with "Nectar Guards" (1-888-ASPECTS). These small pliable plastic devices fit on the inside of the feeding ports and prevent insects from reaching the nectar. A hummer's long bill, on the other hand, easily penetrates the "Nectar Guard."