The stunning beauty of orioles inspires many of us to fashion our backyards into oriole welcome stations.
Feeders are the simplest, most effective lure for migrant orioles. The birds occasionally take sunflower seed and suet, but they prefer sweeter fare. Oranges attract and give orioles a healthy food source. Some bird feeders are designed to serve orange halves, but simply putting orange halves, fruit-side up, on a deck railing or platform feeder works equally well.
Some sugar-water feeders have large perches to accommodate both hummingbirds and orioles. Never use food coloring — it’s unhealthy and absolutely unnecessary. Make sugar water about the same concentration as natural nectars. Most authorities say to use one-fourth of a cup of sugar per cup of water — the average concentration of nectar. During cold, wet spells, one-third of a cup of sugar per cup of water is still within natural ranges and provides extra calories for shivering birds.
You don’t need to boil the water unless you’re making large batches to refrigerate. Boiled or not, sugar water starts to ferment as soon as it’s made, and the warmer it is, the quicker fermentation proceeds. Change sugar water, boiled or not, as soon as it becomes at all cloudy, and every couple of days, cloudy or not, in hot weather.
Orioles are fond of jelly, but feeding it is controversial. (See my jelly controversy column from the September/October 2017 issue here.) No studies confirm that jelly is either healthy or unhealthy for birds, but what tastes good to birds, or people, isn’t always nutritious. Small birds can get mired in jelly, so only offer it in containers too small for little birds to walk through or fall into. I use jar tops and also spoon jelly into freshly emptied orange halves; when the jelly is gone, they’re composted.
Some jellies contain artificial sweeteners, denying birds both carbs and calories, and they’re possibly dangerous. I use homemade or store-bought jelly sweetened with sugar; no studies have confirmed benefits or dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, but I figure better safe than sorry.
Most backyards that attract orioles during migration can’t hold them through breeding season. Orioles usually nest near ponds, rivers, and other natural water sources, in tall shade trees with slender outer twigs, sturdy enough to support their purse-shaped nests while too narrow to accommodate marauding squirrels, jays, and crows.
Ideal oriole habitat also provides a wealth of natural insect food and a selection of locally native trees and shrubs that supply fruits from spring through fall. Some ornamental fruit trees bear toxic fruits; choose locally native varieties of mulberries, serviceberries, and flowering dogwood. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several fine suggestions here.
Even if your backyard doesn’t have suitable nesting habitat, orioles start migrating as soon as the young are strong fliers. They appear every year in my own yard as the fruits on our cherry trees ripen. By then, males have stopped singing and families and individuals tend to be quiet and inconspicuous within foliage, so I carefully scan the branches. Spring through fall, orioles are worth the effort.
This article was first published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the May/June 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine.