Ask people to name a bird associated with Baltimore, and the answer will quite probably be: Baltimore Orioles. While the sporting image is the one best known, the real bird is itself quite a fascinating subject.
This iconic symbol of Baltimore’s baseball fame, is actually one of nine separate varieties of Orioles found across the United States.
Like most birds, the male is the more colorful of the species, and its bright orange and black plumage can be quite stunning when seen up close, at the right season of the year.
Long distance travelers visiting us each summer
The Baltimore Orioles are migratory birds, spending the winter in the warmer climes of Central America, and returning to their breeding grounds in the Eastern parts of the United States, in the spring.
They are birds that prefer open wooded country rather than dense forests, and they like to spend most of their time fairly high up in leafy tree tops. They have, however, become very accustomed to town life, and frequent back yards, gardens and parks with regularity. They are most likely to be seen when they come lower down, to search for food in garden trees, bushes and shrubs.
Favorite foods and eating habits
The favorite food of Baltimore Orioles consists of a variety of insects, fruit, and flower nectar. During the warm summer breeding season, they tend to feed more on insects, as the high protein content is beneficial for feeding their chicks. In the fall they feed largely on fruits and sip and the nectar from blossoms. Presumably the sugary content of these food sources is beneficial in preparing them for the long flight back to their winter roosting ground in Central America.
The protein rich diet they favor is made up of a wide variety of insect life. They are known to eat beetles, moths, grasshoppers, spiders, caterpillars, grubs and larvae, and even snails. Their love of fruit of all types, though, hasn’t endeared them to fruit farmers, whose crops of ripening berries are likely to be raided by these feathered feasters whenever the fancy takes them.
An interesting feeding habit that Baltimore Orioles have, is that they prefer only darker colored fruits, ignoring lighter colored grapes or berries, even if they are ripe. They are able to hang upside down while foraging for food in the tree tops, and are acrobatic climbers and feeders. They are quick enough and agile enough, to be able to fly off a branch and catch a flying insect in mid air.
While the female does all the work, the male keeps guard
When the breeding season arrives, female Baltimore Orioles weave amazing, hanging nests, stitched together from a variety of leaves and fibers. The nest is a closed structure, usually around 3 to 4 inches deep, with a small opening, a couple of inches wide at the top of the nest, and a larger bottom chamber, around 3 to 4 inches across where the eggs will be laid and the chicks raised.
The nest is always situated high up in a tree out of harms way, and is quite an intricate ‘sock-shaped’ design, usually hanging from under a suitable branch. The breeding pair will both bring materials to fashion the nest, although with Orioles, unlike some other species, it is mainly the female that builds the nest, weaving it skillfully with her beak, while the male takes no part whatsoever in the actual construction process.
Although natural plant materials usually form the major part of the structure, Orioles are not averse to using any convenient strips and pieces of artificial materials they may find lying around.
A comfortable safe home for the next generation
The nest building usually takes upward of a week. When it is finished, it is finally lined with soft materials and feathers, to provide a warm cushioned surface for the eggs she will lay, and the young that will hatch from them.
The male birds often sing perched high up at the tops of trees, but unlike many other birds, they tolerate other Orioles feeding nearby, and only defend the space immediately around their nest.
Next time you see a flash of orange amongst the leaves, spend a few moments marvelling at these lovely feathered creatures that bring so much beauty to our every-day surroundings.