The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Orioles are Colorful Birds In Spite of their Family Relations
by Ro Wauer

It has always seemed strange to me why orioles, some of our most colorful and fascinating birds, are members of the Icteridae Family. That is the same family, usually known as "blackbirds," that include such drab colored birds as blackbirds, cowbirds, and grackles Yet, a few Icterids, such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, and yellow-headed blackbirds, seem to possess a little more color and personality. And the red-winged blackbird, found throughout non-Arctic North America, is one of our best known songbirds.

But of all the Icterids, none are as personable as the orioles, all lumped into the genus Icterus. Only two oriole species - Baltimore and orchard orioles - can be expected with any regularity in the Coastal Bend area, and then only as spring and fall migrants. The Baltimore oriole is the best known, especially in the eastern half of the United States, and is often depicted on murals, plates, cups, etc. And it is the logo of the Baltimore, Maryland baseball team. It is a fairly large oriole with bright orange underparts, black back and head, and two white wingbars. The closely related Bullock's oriole, found in the western United States, lacks the all black head and the male has broad white wingbars. These two species were lumped together as "northern oriole" for several years because they are known to interbreed where their ranges overlap.

Orchard orioles are one of the smallest of orioles, and the males are easy to identify by their unique color pattern: chestnut underparts, black head, breast, and back, and a single white wingbar. Females of all the orioles are far more subtly colored with a yellowish chest, whitish belly, and gray-green back. The exceptions include the Scott's oriole of the western yucca grasslands, the Altamira oriole of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the very rare black-vented oriole that has been recorded in Texas only in Big Bend National Park and near Kingsville.

Two additional orioles occur in South Texas. The hooded oriole, that ranges from Kennedy County west to Brewster County, is a trim little oriole with yellow underparts, nape and head, black throat, brownish back and wings, and two white wingbars. The Audubon's oriole is a true South Texas specialty, known only within the South Texas Brushlands, barely reaching Goliad County. It was earlier known as "black-headed oriole" due to the male's all black head and throat. Its underparts are bright yellow and its wings and tail are black; it also has a single white wingbar and white streaks on the wings.

Orioles are unique birds for several reasons. They all built pendent nests, sometimes quite large hanging baskets, woven from grasses, plant fibers, and even hair and feathers, and lined with plant down, into a tight waterproof basket. Some species, such as the Altamira oriole, often builds its nest hanging from an amazingly high wire, an exceptional location to keep it safe from predators, such as squirrels, skunks, and other four-legged creatures.

In addition, all the orioles possess wonderful songs. Most are like mellow whistles, oftentimes three or more note warbles. Some sing slurred notes that may upturn or downturn at the end. The song of the Altamira oriole has been described as a fairly rapid series of short whistles interspersed with low, harsh notes. That of the Audubon's oriole has been described as a hesitant series of mellow whistles with human quality. It often reminds me of a young boy learning to whistle.

Besides the varied and melodic songs, each oriole also has a series of call notes that, in themselves, are rather distinct. That of the Baltimore oriole is a one- or two-syllable flutelike whistle, along with a grating chatter. That of the orchard oriole is more often a soft chatter.

Each in its own way is unique and well worth your attention.

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