Scott's Oriole

Icterus parisorum

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 2002
  • Nancy J. Flood

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Figure 1. Distribution of Scott's Oriole.

This species winters regularly in small numbers north of the distribution shown.

Adult male Scott's Oriole

The lemon-yellow body color of the adult male Scott's Oriole provides a striking contrast to the black of its head, breast, back, and wings; it also makes this species one of the few orioles to truly deserve the name Icterus, which is derived from the Greek word “ ikteros,” or “jaundice.” The ancients gave this name to a small yellow bird, a sighting of which purportedly cured the disease. The specific epithet parisorum was provided in 1838 by the French naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803–1857), who had visited America for a period in the 1820s. The name commemorates the Paris brothers who, while doing business in Mexico, financed the collection and transport to France of a large number of natural-history specimens, including birds (Gruson 1972, Terres 1980b, Choate 1985). A second attempt to name the species was made by Darius Couch (1822–1897), a U.S. Civil War general; he called it Icterus scottii in honor of his superior in the Mexican war, Gen. Winfield Scott (1786–1866). The existence of the earlier name, however, meant that the general had to settle for being remembered in the species' common name, Scott's Oriole.

Sometimes referred to as the mountain or desert oriole, Scott's Oriole is actually a little of both, being found most commonly in relatively elevated, arid habitats, particularly the desert-facing slopes of mountains, or semiarid plains between mountain ranges. It seems well adapted to hot, dry environments and typically nests in tree species associated with desert habitats: arboreal yuccas (Yucca spp.), desert palms (Washingtonia spp.), junipers (Juniperus spp.), and piñon pines (Pinus cembroides). As might be predicted, therefore, it is more or less restricted to the southwestern United States and western Mexico (Figure 1). Although considered a Neotropical migrant, since individuals breeding in the United States move southward to winter in Mexico, some Mexican populations may be resident; a large portion of the breeding and wintering ranges overlap, and a relative lack of information on the species south of the U.S. border makes this uncertain.

Seasonally monogamous, Scott's Oriole begins to arrive on its U.S. breeding grounds in late March and stays through July or August, many pairs raising 2 broods, and at least some pairs attempting a third. Scott's nests are built lower to the ground and are more cup-shaped than the less accessible, baglike nests of the familiar Baltimore (I. galbula) and Bullock's (I. bullockii) orioles. Like these species, however, it seems to defend nesting-only territories, regularly flying great distances to forage, mainly for arthropods. It also feeds on various types of fruit and takes nectar from a variety of sources.

A “midsized” oriole (compared to others in the genus), Scott's is sexually dimorphic both in size and appearance; females are slightly smaller than males and have a much less conspicuous dull-yellow to olive-green plumage, with a variable, but limited amount of black feathering on the head. Males display delayed plumage maturation: individuals in their first potential breeding season (yearlings) are intermediate between females and adult males in appearance. Although some of these young, female-like males breed, many do not.

The apparent tendency of Scott's Oriole to wander outside of its usual breeding and/or wintering range makes it an interesting subject of study from a variety of perspectives. However, little is known about many aspects of its biology, particularly what it does on the wintering grounds. Although general descriptions of the species are common (e.g., in books on the avifauna of specific states, parks, or regions), most of these accounts are anecdotal, and there has been little systematic study of this oriole. The author studied the phenology, nesting, and parental behavior of the Scott's Oriole for several years in Texas; many of those results are published here for the first time. Kozma and Mathews (Kozma and Mathews 1997) studied habitat selection of this species, among others, in New Mexico deserts. Although it is not currently considered threatened in any part of its range, and in fact, seems to be increasing in some parts of the United States, the lack of information about its ecology in Mexico suggests need for caution about its future.

Recommended Citation

Flood, N. J. (2002). Scott's Oriole (Icterus parisorum), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.