Years ago, when I began watching birds the last bird I ever thought I would see in the winter is the Baltimore oriole. Such is not the case anymore. Nowadays I realize there is a legitimate chance that one might winter in my yard.
This represents an extraordinary extension of the bird’s historic winter range. The birds have historically wintered from southern Mexico southward to Columbia.
This dramatic change came to light during the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950s, wintering Baltimore orioles were regularly seen as far north as New England.
For reasons not fully understood, Baltimore Orioles are now seen each winter wintering in small numbers throughout the state and the rest of eastern North America. Some experts suggest that this phenomenon is at least partially linked to an increase in the number of folks that now feed birds during the winter months. Who knows?
Three hundred and two reports of wintering Baltimore Orioles involving 976 individuals were submitted during the 2020 Great Backyard Bird Count. Ninety-five percent of the reports originated from a broad band of coastal states from Virginia to Texas.
Some three decades ago, my wife and I hosted our first Baltimore oriole. The bird was an immature male. Remarkably, it stayed with us throughout the entire winter. This provided the unique opportunity to observe it go through the transformation from immature, which looked like a pale version of an adult, to a mature bird decked out in bright black and orange feathers.
As expected, Baltimore orioles are wintering in Georgia again this year. I have already received two reports of folks hosting Baltimore orioles. A couple in College Park is hosting a single bird. Whereas a man in Glynn County reports he is regularly seeing three birds in his yard.
I know of two different homeowners in Warner Robins that annually host Baltimore orioles. One couple hosts more than two dozen Baltimore Orioles each year.
If you are interested in trying to attract a Baltimore oriole to your yard, you need to entice them with the right food. Let’s look at what they do and do not like to eat.
Topping the list of foods that Baltimore orioles largely avoid are most seeds. Sunflower seeds, wheat, rye and sorghum are far down on the bird’s foods list. The birds will, from time to time, eat cracked corn, pecan chips, and millet.
In comparison, they are fond of sugar water. However, most people that have been maintaining a hummingbird feeder throughout the winter in hopes of attracting a winter hummingbird never see an oriole. The reason that a Baltimore oriole has not dropped in for a quick drink of this manmade nectar could be because the birds cannot stick their large bills through the feeder’s feeding portals to reach the food.
This problem can be remedied in a couple of different ways. You can buy oriole feeders that are equipped with larger feeding ports. If you don’t want to go to that expense, enlarge the holes on an existing feeder. If you use a Four Fountain Feeder equipped with yellow bee guards, simply remove one or more of the guards. This will allow an oriole easy access to sugar water contained in the feeder.
Some folks have succeeded in attracting orioles with orange halves. However, I must admit, most people report this approach rarely works for them.
Since insects are an important part of the oriole’s diet, it should come as no surprise that the birds will eat suet in the wintertime. If orioles have not previously eaten suet in your yard, you might try feeding a suet containing fruit.
Baltimore orioles are fond of fruit. As such, they will feed at feeders that offer them fruits: bananas, grapes, raisins, halved apples, and blueberries.
Baltimore orioles also eat white bread, piecrust, peanut butter, and, believe it or not, powdered cake doughnuts. The first wintering Baltimore orioles I ever saw regularly fed on powdered doughnuts placed in a wire suet feeder.
That being said, the food that is considered to have the highest appeal to wintering Baltimore orioles is grape jelly. In fact, most people that feed the birds jelly insist you must use Welch’s grape jelly. It is a popular belief that this is because less expensive grape jellies don’t contain as much fruit as Welch’s.
The jelly can be placed in special feeders designed for holding jelly. I personally use small plastic sauce cups that often come with takeout food. I place cups of jelly in the corners of a platform seed feeder.
Although I have not heard of a Baltimore oriole wintering in Monroe County, I would not be surprised that one or more are currently here. Why not attempt to attract one of these special birds to your backyard? If you are successful, a Baltimore oriole will add a splash of color to your drab backyard that cannot be provided by any other winter resident.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at email@example.com.