Orioles in Arizona

Male Scott's Oriole

Male Scott’s Oriole, Cochise Stronghold, Arizona (photo Bob Bowers)

Probably our most striking set of summertime visitors are members of the genus Icterus, the new world orioles.  Orioles are part of the family Icteridae, a group that includes seemingly unrelated birds like grackles, blackbirds, bobolinks, cowbirds and meadowlarks.  Though widely diverse, all icterids are notable for one or more uncommon characteristics including elaborate behavior, complex nest-building, unusual vocalization and gregariousness.

Streak-backed Oriole, Alamos, Mexico  (photo Bob Bowers)

Streak-backed Oriole, Alamos, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Of these traits, orioles are known for colorful, contrasting plumage, vocalization and unique nest construction.  Of nine U.S. orioles, Arizona counts three of the five common species as summer nesters (Hooded, Bullock’s and Scott’s), the other two common birds (Baltimore and Orchard) and one of the four uncommon species (Streak-backed) as fairly-regularly reported rarities.  Not surprisingly, Arizona ranks high in state-documented oriole species, one more reason birders find their way to our state.

Woven Baltimore Oriole nest, West Virginia (photo Bob Bowers)

The name ‘oriole’ is onomatopoeic, dating back to 1250, when the similarly-looking (but unrelated) old world Golden Oriole was named for his melodious song.  Our male orioles have striking plumage of black, yellow, orange and white, and even the duller females (sorry, ladies) are beautifully colored in muted yellow, green and olive.  Orioles are slender, with long tails and sharp bills.  Although primarily insectivorous, orioles have a sweet tooth, so to speak, and will strip flowers to get to nectar, and they love fresh orange halves as well as grape jelly.  They also are regulars at hummingbird feeders, capable of drinking sugar water from the narrowest of feeder holes.  Orioles weave beautifully elaborate pendulous nests from plant fibers.  Scott’s Orioles nest in relatively low yucca plants, using dead yucca leaf fiber, while the Hooded Oriole (SaddleBrooke’s most common oriole) prefers palm trees, stripping thin fibers from palm leaves and weaving them into the underside of other palm leaves.  These precarious, hanging sack-like nests are designed to protect eggs and nestlings from climbing predators, and are the reason we should postpone palm tree pruning until Labor Day, when our orioles begin returning to their wintering grounds in Mexico.  Our nesting orioles arrive in March or April, raise one or two broods typically, and then fly home to Mexico or Central America in September.

Male Hooded Oriole at hummingbird feeder  (photo Bob Bowers)

Male Hooded Oriole at hummingbird feeder (photo Bob Bowers)

These broods sometimes include an intruder.  Bronzed Cowbirds, a very different-looking Icterid family member, are parasitic with a particular affinity to Hooded Orioles.  Cowbirds don’t bother building nests, they simply wait for a host bird to leave for lunch, then swing by the nest long enough to drop an egg of their own, which is incubated by the host bird along with her own eggs.  The stranger typically is fed and fledged by the hosts, who have tolerated these intrusions for millennia.

Gray Head, male Hooded Oriole who wintered over 2010-2011 (photo Bob Bowers)

On occasion, a rare oriole will miss the September bus out of town.  This happened to us in the fall of 2010.  A male Hooded Oriole showed up at our hummingbird feeders in mid-September, after our nesting birds had left the state.  We watched this same bird hang out in our yard through October, November, December and the following severely cold January and February, even though his roosting spot in an oleander lost all its leaves and we were thawing frozen sugar water regularly.  We called him Gray Head due to his darker than normal crown, and continued to be amazed at his stubborn refusal to head south.  This was a time of escalating cartel violence in Mexico, so maybe he just thought he was safer in Arizona.

(This article originally appeared in the August, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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