Baltimore Oriole

Icterus galbula

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1998
  • James D. Rising and Nancy J. Flood

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Baltimore Oriole.

This species winters south to Colombia and Ecuador, and east to the northern Lesser Antilles. Small numbers also winter in the U.S. north of the range indicated.

Adult male Baltimore Oriole, Iowa, May

Mines of Spain, Iowa 5/28/05. ; photographer Ernesto Scott

Historically a bird of woodland edge and open riparian woods, the Baltimore Oriole has adapted well to urban parks and suburban landscapes. This adaptability, as well as the bright orange and black coloration of the adult male, the clear, melodious song, and the characteristic, carefully woven pendent nest, make this oriole one of our most familiar songbirds. Males do not develop their bright coloration until their second Prebasic molt, in the fall of their second calendar year. Although yearling males (those in their first potential breeding season) resemble adult females, some successfully attract mates and raise young. The species is usually socially monogamous.

The Baltimore Oriole was illustrated and described by Mark Catesby in the first volume of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, published in 1731. Catesby named this bird the "Baltimore-Bird," because black and orange were the colors of the Baltimores, the colonial proprietors of the Maryland colony. On the basis of Catesby's description, Linnaeus named this species Coracias galbula (the small yellowish jackdaw) in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, published in 1758. The English vernacular name "oriole" is based on the superficial resemblance of these birds to the orioles (Oriolidae) of the Old World.

Although a few Baltimore Orioles winter in the southern states, most migrate to the Neotropics. They start to leave their wintering grounds in February or March, and begin to arrive along the Gulf Coast in early April. Most individuals depart for their wintering grounds by mid-September. In winter and during migration, Baltimore Orioles are often seen in small groups composed of mixed ages and sexes.

In the Great Plains, this species frequently hybridizes with the Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii), despite marked differences between the 2 species in appearance, behavior, and vocalizations, and some difference in size. As a consequence of this hybridization, these two orioles were placed in a single species, the Northern Oriole (Icterus galbula), in the sixth edition of the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds (American Ornithologists' Union 1983), a decision widely reflected in the literature. Recently, the Check-list Committee separated these 2 orioles at the specific level (American Ornithologists' Union 1995), and recent work indicates the 2 species may not be each other's closest relative (see Systematics).

Studies of the breeding biology of the Baltimore Oriole include Edinger 1985 (eastern Colorado), Flood 1984 (south-central Kansas), Labedz 1982 (central-western Kansas), and Pank 1974 (Massachusetts). The adaptive significance of the delayed plumage of males has been studied by Flood (Flood 1980, Flood 1984, Flood 1989), and molt by Sealy (Sealy 1979b), Rohwer and Johnson (Rohwer and Johnson 1992), Rohwer and Manning (Rohwer and Manning 1990). Beletsky (Beletsky 1982a, Beletsky 1982b) studied vocal behavior. Hybridization between Baltimore and Bullock's orioles has been especially well studied, with the hybrid zone in the Great Plains being one of the best described in the literature (Rising 1996c).

Recommended Citation

Rising, J. D. and N. J. Flood (1998). Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.