You may know the Baltimore oriole as Maryland’s state bird. The handsome Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) is a beautiful, brilliantly plumed golden-orange, black and white songbird. It is widespread east of the Great Plains and has a medium to long distance migratory path. Flocks begin to arrive in eastern and central North America starting in early April to late May and leave for the sunny climes of Florida, the Caribbean, Central and South America as early as July. April through June is the time for spotting this Old Line State icon, though it can be tricky as it frequents the highest of tree perches. You may need a pair of good binoculars to ferret out this flashy flyer.

A male Baltimore oriole. (Michelle Smith, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Baltimore oriole prefers open woodlands and the drab colored female (dull orange, brown and olive) weaves her impressive pouch-like nest high in treetops; males provide no assistance in construction, but may provide some of the materials. A clutch of 3-7 gray or bluish white eggs with blotchy brown, black or lavender spots is laid and in about two weeks, babies burst forth, eyes closed swathed in downy white feathers. The young males do not acquire their magnificent heraldic colors until the Fall of their second year. As they molt, females may actually become more colorful each season. 

The adult Baltimore oriole, their eggs and fledglings have a fair amount of predation from crows, blue jays, magpies, screech owls, hawks, falcons, squirrels, cats and others. Their life span in the wild according to the Cornell Lab of ornithology is 12 years, and in captivity, about 14 years. 

These stunning, agile birds enjoy feasting on insects such as flies, moths, spiders, crickets, and snails. They indulge in rich, dark colored fruit and enjoy sweet nectar. No pale colored fruit or bird seed for these beauties. You may want to hang a feeder suited to their needs or hang orange halves and see if you can coax these vibrant birds to your backyard. 

The rich colors of the Baltimore oriole are responsible for its name. The coat of arms of 17th Century Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, was black and golden thus this exquisite bird was similar in coloration to the heraldry of the Baltimore family. Oriole comes from the avian family to which the Baltimore Orioles were thought to belong, the Old World Oriolidea. However it was later discovered that the Baltimore oriole in North America belongs to the family Icterid. Aureolus in Latin means golden. Perhaps Oriole comes from the Latin.

In 1698 these colorful avians were considered “Beasts of Curiosity” and many were sent from Maryland to the royal gardens in England. In 1947 this little bird was dubbed the official bird of the Old Line State. In 1882 Maryland provided for its protection. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protected the Baltimore oriole and other migratory birds. In 1975 it was protected by the state’s Nongame and Endangered Species Act. However, since 1966 and more dramatically after 1980, Baltimore oriole numbers declined. This is attributed to dwindling habitat here and abroad and pesticide use which destroys not only the insects the Baltimore oriole enjoys but in many cases, the bird itself. Between 1966 and 2010, their numbers have plummeted by 24%.

A female Baltimore oriole. (Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

When trying to spot the Baltimore oriole, look for a bird about the size of an American robin, 6.5 inches long. The males are easiest to spy with their blazing orange and black coloration. The males have a black head, wings and tail with golden-orange undersides, shoulders and rear with a white wing bar. Females and immature birds are trickier to spot with dull orange and brown or olive coloration. Look high in treetops for these stunners. You may hear them before you see them. Check out the sound of their call and try to hear them first.

Maryland is fortunate to have the Baltimore oriole as its state bird. It truly is distinctive and one of the most glorious of state birds. We must thank the striking colors of the Baltimore family’s coat of arms that are also known as “Maryland’s Colors” or “Baltimore Colors” for mimicking the true beauty of this feathered objet d’art and securing it as Maryland’s own.

To find out more about the magnificent Baltimore oriole visit:

Cornell University, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Websites: https://www.allaboutbirds.org; https://feederwatch.org and https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Barbara loves nature and the history of Maryland. A Baltimore oriole flew past the open window of her car while stopped in Druid Park, Baltimore a few years back. It was the one and only time she has ever spotted this flashy avian. How perfect! Barbara may be reached at: barbara.s.aiken@gmail.com

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Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.