With the exception of the Baltimore Oriole, some of whom winter in Florida and coastal areas of the southeast, orioles are a spring and summer phenomenon in the U.S. Of the five oriole species that regularly nest and breed in the U.S., three of them are commonly seen in Arizona, the Hooded, Bullock’s and Scott’s. All have been seen in SaddleBrooke, but the most common and the only one that nests here is the Hooded Oriole.
Female Hooded Orioles, as is the case with most birds, are less colorful than the males, but still eye-catching and beautiful. Their backs and wings are light gray, but from their face down they are a soft lemon yellow. They bear some color resemblance to our Lesser Goldfinches, but are easily distinguished from the goldfinches. Including a long tail, the oriole is eight inches in length, nearly twice as long as the Lesser, and their bill is long and slender, unlike the short, seed-eating bill of finches. Adult male Hooded Orioles are quite striking, with a black face and neck and bright yellow belly, crown and nape, giving the appearance of a yellow hood (hence, the name).
Our Hooded Orioles typically arrive in March, build a nest (they love palm trees), raise a family and head back to Mexico, usually by the end of September. Orioles eat insects, fruit and nectar, and are common visitors to hummingbird feeders. Although we don’t have a palm tree in our yard, our neighbor does, and for the past few years we have been fortunate enough to have a pair of Hooded Orioles nest there. These orioles frequent our hummingbird feeders and trumpet vines, so we get lots of opportunities to enjoy and photograph them. As usual, they disappeared in September 2010, heading back to their winter home in Mexico together with the rest of Arizona’s orioles. Well, most of them, anyway.
One day late that September, we were surprised to see a solitary male Hooded Oriole at one of our hummingbird feeders. We assumed he was just a slow packer, and that he would soon join his buddies. Wrong. October came, and he still showed up daily. Thanksgiving came, and so did he. Before long, we became familiar with the bird’s appearance, and realized that it was the same bird we were seeing each day. His distinguishing mark was a slightly graying crown, not unlike a lot of other folks here in the Brooke. We named him Gray Head, and looked forward to his daily visits, though we expected his departure to Mexico momentarily. Wrong again. Winter arrived and Gray Head still hung out. When we had our first hard freeze, we felt certain he would leave, but no. Then the really cold weather hit and our early morning temperature dropped to 17. We thawed our hummingbird feeders hourly during the big freeze, and Gray Head was right there with our shivering hummers. His favorite hangout was an oleander bush close to his feeder of choice. When the coldest weather struck, the oleander shed its leaves but Gray Head still perched there between feedings, as conspicuous as a bright Christmas ornament. He continued to entertain us until March, when his cousins returned from Mexico to rebuild their palm tree nest. As they moved in, he finally moved on, probably to some northern territory more suitable to his penchant for cool weather.
Bird ranges are dynamic, and many changes have been recorded over the past few years. Rufous Hummingbirds, for example, increasingly are wintering in the southeast U.S. as well as Mexico, and Hooded Orioles have expanded their summer breeding range into northern California. It’s possible that Gray Head is more adventurer than procrastinator, maybe the first of future year-round Arizona orioles. We’re considering re-naming him Columbus.
(This article, edited to update it, originally appeared in the March, 2011 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)