Baltimore Oriole

(This column appeared in the May 5, 1997 Buffalo News.)

Early May is a time of anticipation for birders. The addicted among us are already reciting our mantra, "The warblers are coming, the warblers are coming," but it will be several days before those tiny jewels will appear in good numbers. Meanwhile we are delighted by other songbirds as they return to decorate our shade trees.

One species that gives me much pleasure each year when it returns is the Baltimore oriole. (I am happy to be able to call it that again after many years when it was referred to as the northern oriole. Reversing an earlier combining of these species, ornithological systematists just last year split northern orioles back into our familiar Baltimore oriole and the western Bullock's oriole.) My enjoyment in that first sighting is shared with ornithologist Winsor Tylor who claims that the "greatest day of the whole year is in early May when the apple blossoms are opening. On this day the Baltimore oriole makes his dramatic entrance."

The vagaries of weather affect the migration timing of these beautiful birds in their long trip from Central America. My records, accumulated over eight years canvassing Williamsville Glen, show our oriole arriving as early as April 30 (in 1990 and 1994) and as late as May 11 (in 1995), with an average arrival date of May 6. Although the Glen is not a place where birders go for earliest records -- Tifft Nature Preserve and Times Beach are probably best for them -- mine compare closely with those of Beardslee and Mitchell's "Birds of the Niagara Frontier," which is the local standard. May 1 is their expected first arrival and May 8 the date when they become numerous.

Each spring the oriole's clear rounded whistle first attracts my attention. His cheery notes greet me as I enter Glen Park. From the top of a tall cottonwood he's proclaiming to us common folk his majestic arrival on the Niagara Frontier. And because he is so much a creature of habit, I know exactly where to look for him. Indeed there he is, singing from his usual perch.

Now he leaves that high branch and flies across to the top of a maple. Like the cardinal he combines beauty of appearance with his melodious voice. As he flies overhead in the early morning sunlight I get a spectacular view of the rich orange of his breast in contrast with his black head. Unlike his darker and rarer congener, the orchard oriole, the male Baltimore oriole also shows a white chevron in each wing. He's about the same length as another relative, the red-winged blackbird, but he appears to this prejudiced observer slimmer and more graceful.

In a few days his olive-colored consort will arrive and they will mate. Then their remarkable nest will be constructed high in an elm, maple, or other hardwood tree. An opportunity to watch the intricate nest-building process is a great experience. After gathering and dangling a mass of material from the end of a branch, in just two or three days the female will feverishly weave the strands into a soft hanging basket -- a unique nest. (You can sometimes attract orioles by stringing pieces of yarn and twine in your shrubbery.) In late May or early June four or five grayish white eggs will be laid and the family raising process begun.

Orioles' preferred food is caterpillars, which with other insects makes up five sixths of their diet. Later they will also feed on wild berries.

Welcome back to this colorful aristocrat. You'll do fine whether or not those warblers stop by.