Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Orioles
Nature Bulletin No. 300-A   March 30, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the privileges of being a small boy in a little country town, especially if you had been taught by your grandpa to pick a good spot and then sit motionless for a long, long time, was that you shared the secret lives of the wild creatures. One day a muskrat crept out of a pond to sniff at our bare toes and a red fox came trotting around the shore. At home, we watched a Baltimore oriole weave her wonderful hanging nest at the tip of a drooping branch on the huge elm by our back porch. Her nests of last year and the year before still hung on the tree but she built a new one, using fibers of old milkweed stalks, some of the string and yarn we hung on the clothesline and, finally, long horsehairs from the barnyard. The Winesap apple tree was in full bloom, the bees were making honey, and the green grass grew all around.

The Baltimore Oriole was so named because the colors of the male, fiery orange and jet black, were those of Lord Baltimore who founded the Maryland colony, and because it resembled the Golden Oriole of the Old World. The true orioles, however, are found only in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Our orioles belong to a different family of birds peculiar to this western hemisphere, most of them in the tropics of Central and South America, including such well known but very dissimilar birds as the bobolink, meadowlarks, blackbirds and grackles. American orioles are notable for their gaudy colors, the types of nests they build, and their habit of migrating singly, rather than in flocks. There are six Mexican species which range into parts of our southwestern states but only one of them, Scott's Oriole, comes as far north as the desert canyons in southern Utah and Nevada. West of the Rockies, Bullock's Oriole is as common as the Baltimore is in the East.

With the exception of the scarlet tanager and a few of the little warblers, the orange-and-black plumage of the male Baltimore oriole is the most striking of any of our eastern songbirds. It is found from the Gulf coast to southern Canada, east of the Rockies, and winters in Central or South America. The immature birds and most females are olive-yellow above and yellow below but the females vary considerably The male's song, rather low-pitched and abrupt but musical and ringing varies with the individual and, though easily imitated, is difficult to describe. Thoreau said that one oriole, at Walden Pond, whistled: "Eat it, Potter, eat it! " While papa wanders and whistles nearby, mamma weaves the deep gourd-shaped hammock in which to lay from 4 to 6 eggs. He helps her raise the young. They seem to prefer tall shade trees, especially elms and sycamores, rather than forest trees; and rarely use any grasses or bright-colored material for the hanging nest. They eat some fruit and green peas but feed mostly on insects.

The Orchard Oriole is as widely distributed as the Baltimore but is much less common and very shy. Instead of orange, the rump and underparts of the male are a rich rust-brown. His song is more elaborate, rapid and high-pitched than that of his cousin. Orchard orioles commonly nest in the tops of apple or pear trees although they also choose trees along stream banks -- especially weeping willows. The nest is a cup-shaped pouch, 3 or 4 inches deep, intricately interwoven of long tough blades of fine grasses and lined with soft plant fibers, horsehair or feathers. It is a work of art. The orchard oriole is valuable to the fruit grower and the farmer because, although they eat some fruit and berries, they feed chiefly on insects.

Baltimore is proud of its white marble doorsteps, orioles and oysters.

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