Baltimore Oriole

Icterus galbula

  • Version: 1.1 — Published May 30, 2019
  • James D. Rising and Nancy J. Flood

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Baltimore Oriole.

Breeding and (partial) wintering ranges 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.

Male Baltimore Oriole (8 July).

Medium-sized oriole; sexually dimorphic in plumage and size. Definitive Alternate (adult) male strikingly plumaged with black head, upper mantle, and primarily black wings, and tail; orange on remaining upperparts and underparts, shoulders, and distal portion of outer rectrices; and single white wing-bar.

© Gary Mueller , Missouri , United States , 8 July 2018
Female Baltimore Oriole (14 May).

Definitive Alternate (adult) female highly variable, sometimes approaching male but more subdued in coloration, with head and mantle not solidly black, variably mottled dark brownish olive, and with paler orange underparts and rump and plain brownish-olive tail. Some females can closely resemble adult males while others show little or no black in head; on average females appear to become more malelike with age.

© Jim Norris , Ontario , Canada , 14 May 2011

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 some Baltimore Orioles overwinter in the southern states, most migrate to the Neotropics and overwinter primarily in Central America and northern South America. They start to leave their overwintering grounds in February or March, and begin to arrive along the Gulf Coast in early April. Most individuals depart for their overwintering grounds by mid-September. During overwintering and migratory periods, 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 two 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 (1), a decision widely reflected in the literature. The two orioles were reclassified as separate species in 1995 (2), and research indicates the two species are not each other's closest relative (see Systematics).

Studies of the breeding biology of the Baltimore Oriole include Edinger (3; eastern Colorado), Flood (4; south-central Kansas), Labedz (5; central-western Kansas), and Pank (6; Massachusetts). The adaptive significance of the delayed plumage of males has been studied by Flood (7, 4, 8), and molt by Sealy (9), Rohwer and Johnson (10), and Rohwer and Manning (11). Beletsky (12, 13) 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 (14).

Recommended Citation

Rising, J. D. and N. J. Flood (2019). Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), version 1.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.