Orioles making their way into Eastern Iowa

Birding column: Baltimore and orchard are 2 species to keep an eye on

A male Baltimore oriole bathes at a water feature in Marion around mid-May 2018. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)
A male Baltimore oriole bathes at a water feature in Marion around mid-May 2018. (Brandon Caswell/correspondent)

It’s always a thrill to see that first flash of orange and black, marking the spring arrival of orioles.

Two species predominate in Iowa, the well-known Baltimore and the similar orchard. Both species tend to show up in Eastern Iowa around extreme late April and early May. Both nest throughout the state.

These two species are a bit smaller than robins and slimmer. Due to their blackbird affinities, orioles have fairly long, pointed bills.

Adult male Baltimore orioles have a black head and back. A white wing bar on black wing coverts along with black flight feathers will show white edging. The upper side of the tail feathers is black with orange corners, while the underside is light orange. The breast and belly of the adult male are a vibrant orange, often richest just under a black throat. Female Baltimore coloration is highly variable. Many have a mostly yellowish head and underside, often with a largely brownish back. Dark flight feathers and wing coverts have white edges like the male. The tail is yellow.

The adult orchard oriole male is similar to the Baltimore, however, the vibrant orange is instead a rich chestnut. Female orchards are a yellowish green with dark wings containing two white wing bars. First-year orchard oriole males look superficially like an adult female with the addition of a black face and throat.

Orioles are readily identified by their song.

Baltimore oriole makes a rich, whistle-like sound that often sounds doubled upon. Like many oriole species, the female can sing and even duet with the male. The song of orchard oriole is similar to the American robin, but the tone is a loud whistle intermixed with chattering.

If you feed orioles in your yard, it is possible to get both species. In the city it is often easier to draw in Baltimore orioles because of their liking of large, deciduous trees. If you live on the outskirts of town, near pastures or prairies with scattered trees, you could draw in an orchard to your feeders. During heightened periods of migration, both oriole species can show up just about anywhere.


Some believe it is pertinent to set out oriole feeders days to weeks before their arrival if you want to attract the birds. If you keep a keen eye on your yard, put them out as soon as you see (or hear) one. In Iowa, late April or early May is usually a sufficient time to put food out.

Although specific oriole feeders are available for purchase, you can simply nail down halved citrus fruits, such as oranges, topping them with a small scoop of jelly. Something simple as a small plastic lid nailed upside down to a flat surface can be filled with pure or watered down jelly. Like hummingbirds, orioles also like to sip nectar. Oriole nectar feeders also are available at stores.

Some authorities think jelly, since it is so high in sugar content, is actually detrimental to bird physiology. Some suggest leaving out citrus fruits or grapes only. People have been feeding jelly to orioles for a long, long time with no obvious ill-effects noted.

Whatever you decide, if you are able to draw in an oriole to your yard please enjoy it. If you are lucky enough one might decide nest on your property. Nests are wove into a teardrop shape that will hang from high, outer branches of deciduous trees. Be sure to keep your property clear of human-made fibers, such as string and fishing line. Orioles will take these items to build nests, which can cause fatal injuries if the lines get wrapped around their body.

l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.


l Warblers: North America’s wood warblers are very diverse and colorful. Many have a unique, melodious song. Look for peak migration sometime during the first few weeks in May.

l Vireos: Seven species of this songbird will migrate through Iowa with five staying to breed. Bell’s vireo is one of Iowa’s notables.

l Sparrows: Sparrow migration lingers into May. If you find a hot spot it is not uncommon to see 10 to 15-plus species on a given day in May. Look for fence lines that trace through a variety of habitat (trees, brush, grassland, marsh).


l Flycatchers: Look for Iowa nesters like eastern kingbird, eastern phoebe, great crested flycatcher, eastern wood-pewee, Acadian flycatcher and willow flycatcher. Least, alder, yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatchers will be transient only to Eastern Iowa.

l Shorebirds: Around 30 species will travel through Iowa, many to their arctic breeding grounds. Sand Point at Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area and Terry Trueblood RA, both in Johnson County, can be great places to view shorebirds if shallow mud flats and sandbars persist.

l Grassland birds: Look for bobolink, dickcissel and sparrows such as grasshopper, field and henslow’s in grassy areas.


l May 3-5 — Iowa Ornithologists’ Union spring meeting. Join us for the spring IOU meeting at Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, one of the state’s best hot spots for warblers and other spring migrants. Field trips include Lacey-Keosauqua S.P., the croton, Farmington and Donnellson Units of Shimek State Forest, Lake Sugema Wildlife Area, Fox River Wildlife Area and Mt. Sterling Wetlands. Keynote speaker is Nathan Pieplow, author of Peterson Field Guides to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America and his newest volume, Peterson Field Guides to Bird Sounds of Western North America. Visit https://iowabirds.org/IOU/Meetings.aspx for more information.

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