Daily Bird: Orchard Oriole
May 7, 2020
by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler, the quarterly journal of the Connecticut Ornithological Association. With videos by Gilles Carter, member of the Connecticut Audubon Board of Directors
This is a handsome and distinctive species. The males lack the bright orange flash of the more common and widespread Baltimore Oriole but sport a bright chestnut and black plumage unique among North American birds.
The greenish-yellow hues of the female also stand out, and the first-summer males (birds hatched during the previous June or thereabouts) are readily identified by the their black bib. Compared to the Baltimore, it’s a more slender and spritely bird.
Where To Find It: In a continental context, Orchard Orioles are primarily birds of the Midwest and the South. Not surprisingly then, Connecticut is a stronghold for them in New England. Historically, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were near their northern limits, but with northward range expansion they’re now established in coastal New Hampshire and southeastern Maine.
As breeders they avoid large tracts of forest, preferring open areas with deciduous trees in groves, fence rows or in scattered array.
There are strong populations in Fairfield County and up the Connecticut River Valley, but they’re scattered throughout the state in good habitat. A classic location is Northwest Park in Windsor, where the species’ propensity for nesting in proximity or loose colonies is readily apparent.
Other consistent spots include Connecticut Audubon Society’s Milford Point Coastal Center; Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington and Housatonic Wildlife Management Area in Kent. They’re especially easy to observe at the Connecticut Trust property across from Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden.
How To Find It: Because they nest in trees in open country, Orchard Orioles can be conspicuous flying across open areas in search of the insect prey they prefer. However, they’re most often detected by listening for the males’ (both adult and first-year) spirited, rapid burst of whistled notes. A friend once called the Baltimore Oriole “the bird with the operatic throat.” Orchard Orioles sound more like Top 40.
And don’t hesitate in looking for them. They’re among the first songbirds to leave Connecticut for southern breeding areas. This is starkly illustrated by looking at eBird maps. A check for their presence in July finds them in all the expected places, but in September the maps show them virtually gone from New England. July is a good time to look, because family groups sometimes form loose flocks as they stage for departure.
Noteworthy: The Orchard Oriole’s specific scientific name – spurius, which means false – is an unfortunate artifact of early ornithological uncertainty about which age/sex forms to attribute to Orchard vs. Baltimore. As a result, a former name for our clearly legitimate subject was “Bastard Baltimore Oriole.”
Conservation Status: Least Concern