Adult male orchard oriole upperparts are black, with dark chestnut shoulders, rump, and outer tail feathers. Underparts are dark chestnut, with a black throat and upper breast. Female is olive green above, with two white wing bars; underparts are yellowish. First-year males resemble females but have a black throat and black near the bill. The bubbly song is a sweet, variable musical warble, sweeter and more lyrical than a catbird’s, more delicate and less repetitive than a robin’s; it often contains short chatters, chuckles, or rolls, and usually, there’s an up- or down-slurred whistle near the ends of phrases. The call is a chuck.
Similar species: At a glance, male orchard orioles look something like American robins or eastern towhees, but comparing a few pictures of these, noting especially the body and bill shapes, sorts them out. Orioles have narrow, sharp-pointed bills, much like those of their cousins, the meadowlarks and blackbirds. Compared to our other orioles, the deep chestnut-and-black coloration makes male orchard orioles easy to distinguish. Note that female orchard orioles are greenish yellow, while female Baltimore orioles are more orangish. Many birds are greenish yellow — several warblers, vireos, female and late-summer/nonbreeding male tanagers, and American goldfinches, for example — use size and body and bill shapes to tell them apart.
Length: 7¼ inches.
Habitat and Conservation
Orchard orioles are usually found in the higher parts of trees in open woodlands or in open places with scattered trees, such as orchards, among shade trees in parks, in trees near streams or other water, and in hedgerows in grassland areas. Most of the time, people hear them before they see them.
Like other orioles, this species forages for insects, flower nectar, and fruits, and it may come to nectar feeders designed for hummingbirds. Many people attract them to their backyards by offering slices or halves of fresh oranges, or little globs of fruit jam or jelly in little bowls. (Of course, as with hummingbird feeders, do not offer them sugar-free products.) Although orioles eat some fruits such as wild berries, especially during fall migration, they eat many more insects, many of which are plant and crop pests.
Common summer resident.
Orchard orioles arrive in Missouri in late April; most leave by the end of August; by mid-September they have left our state. Orchard orioles build intricately woven nests, 3-inch-deep, 4-inch-wide little baskets that hang from a fork near the ends of branches. Females do most of the building, using grasses and other fibers, lined with feathers, plant down, and other soft materials. Clutches comprise 4–6 eggs, which are incubated 12–14 days and spend another 14 days in the nest before fledging. There can be two broods a year. Summer range includes most of the eastern United States and Mexico; they overwinter from southern Mexico south to Colombia. Orchard orioles can live to be at least 11 years old.
Researchers have found that male orchard orioles may have coevolved with a tropical plant called the coral bean tree (Erythrina fusca), being specially capable of cross-pollinating its flowers, while it eats the nectar from flowers especially suited to attract the male orchard orioles. The coral bean tree is a popular landscaping plant in tropical regions and is used as a shade tree in coffee plantations.
As with most migratory species, orioles come to our region to take advantage of our seasonal bloom of insects, which provide the protein their growing young require, and of fruits. If all these birds stayed in the tropics year round, they would face impossible competition for breeding territories, nest sites, and food. But the scarcity of suitable food during our cold winters forces them south again.