Anyone can be a naturalist. On the Academy Blog, our scientists and experts share their knowledge to help you explore the natural world around you.
Dan Thomas, Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO) collection and intellectual property rights manager for the Academy, suggests you look for the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), one of our most colorful and vocal birds and a sure sign of the arrival of spring.
The male Baltimore oriole has a brilliant orange breast, belly, and rump, which contrast with its all black head, and a single white wing bar (stripe design across the middle of the wings). Females are basically drab versions of the males, without the black hood and with colors varying from pale orange to dull yellow and even a bit of olive. Baltimore orioles are slightly smaller than the American robin.
Male Baltimore orioles have a very distinctive song described as a clear, wet whistle. “There is not really any other bird in our area that sounds like it,” Thomas says. The unique song can vary depending on geographic location, but the oriole’s characteristic high, flute-like pitch is what will help you locate these beautiful birds since they spend so much time in the treetops.
But the males don’t get to have all the fun. Female Baltimore orioles also sing, and often in complement to their male counterparts. The female’s song is simpler than the male’s, which is delivered in a quick stream of coupled notes. The males sing to attract mates and defend their territory and the females usually sing while foraging.
Baltimore orioles arrive in the Philadelphia area in late April or early May, after wintering in Central America and northern South America. They generally like taller, older trees, and deciduous trees Basically any woodland edge near water. Tall sycamore trees along Kelly Drive in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park are a common nesting area for these birds.
Baltimore orioles are notable for more than just their pretty song. They also weave a rather unusual nest. The females build a gourd shaped, hanging pendant nest usually placed fairly high up in the canopy. The design of the nest keeps out predators and protects the delicate chicks inside, Thomas says.
These birds will leave our area sometime between late July and late September, so get out and find one today!
This article was originally published in the spring 2011 issue of our member magazine, Academy Frontiers.