Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Nancie
It is January in Maryland and I have a Baltimore Oriole hanging out in my back yard. Most orioles migrate south in the winter, although each year a rare few stick it out through the Mid-Atlantic winter (and even more northern spots) and don’t migrate.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
A juvenile male, this Baltimore Oriole showed up in my yard on December 23rd as I was cooking for our upcoming Christmas Eve celebration. I wondered why this Baltimore Oriole didn’t migrate and what in the world it could be eating. He’s come by at least daily ever since. While I still don’t know why he didn’t migrate with the rest, I have learned of at least some of this oriole’s unusual winter diet.
While I live just south of Baltimore, Baltimore Orioles are not usually found in my yard. Even in the warmer months when they are typically found in Maryland, Baltimore Orioles are often not easy to see, as they typically hang out high in the tree tops. I’ve put out orange halves at times over the years, but never had an oriole visit my feeders until now. But this Baltimore Oriole not only didn’t migrate, he also doesn’t eat oranges!
Baltimore Oriole Eating Safflower
I’ve watched this oriole almost every day for the past month. Most days he shows up for a little while a couple of times. Lately, as it has gotten colder, he’s been spending longer stretches of time here.
I have four platform feeders in the back yard, two mounted on poles and two hanging from a pole. All of these feeders are full of only safflower seed. The oriole begins at one of the farther feeders, poking through the seed, then moves on to the next, cycling through the four feeders and the ground underneath it.
But what is he eating? If you look up orioles in your field guide, online bird sites or Feederwatch’s interactive Food and Feeder Preferences guide, you will learn that Baltimore Orioles mostly eat insects and fruit. Suggestions for luring one to your feeders revolve around offering fruit, sugar water or suet. Not a word is said about seed and I suspect that their bills aren’t really made for seed eating. This little guy isn’t cracking open his own seed. Instead his strategy is to look for broken bits of seed, cast off by other birds.
Offering the Baltimore Oriole Fruit
Now, I know what orioles are “supposed” to eat and so I’ve tried to help him out. I’ve tried putting out a fresh orange half. Not interested. Banana? Nope. A slice of apple? No. Fresh blueberries and raspberries? Not even a nibble. I tried strawberry preserves, orange marmalade and grape jelly. He seems blissfully unaware that any of these are foods he might like or use for energy.
I speculate that because this oriole is young and didn’t migrate to the tropics as most of his species does in the winter, he may never have seen an orange or a banana. And the jellies might also not look like food. But a raspberry? Surely? Nope.
Yesterday I went to my local bird store to buy a small bag of Nutra-Saf seed, thinking that as this juvenile oriole seems to be focused on eating safflower seed, maybe the thinner hulled Nutra-Saf version might be easier for him to manage on his own. I also bought a new oriole feeder with a dish for jelly and coiled wire for mounting fruit on. So far I haven’t seen this oriole give any of these offerings the slightest bit of interest. Sigh.
Baltimore Oriole Eating Sunflower
BUT! This morning I looked out the window and watched the Baltimore Oriole figure out how to slip through the wire openings of one of the nearer Woodlink cage feeders where I offer sunflower hearts to small birds. Once inside, he sat for quite a while eating sunflower seed!
What Birds are “Supposed” to Eat
It just goes to remind me (once again) that birds will eat things they are not “supposed” to eat if they are hungry enough. I don’t know if this non-migrating Baltimore Oriole will thrive on a winter diet of seed, but he’s made it through the past month. Through watching other birds, he is working things out and trying new things. I still have hope that at some point he’ll try the fruit.
2020 Update: After about a month, this Baltimore Oriole disappeared and I haven’t seen him since. My hope is that he flew south but I have no way of knowing. If you have an Oriole at your winter feeder, do check out the comments below where several bird watchers have shared the foods they have tried to help Orioles at their feeders get through the winter.
2021 Update: I’ve added addition sources about Baltimore Orioles below.
Learn More About Baltimore Orioles
There are some interesting resources online where you can learn more about Baltimore Orioles, what they more typically eat and their movements.
All About Birds: Baltimore Oriole Identification (Includes ID, life history, range maps and sounds.)
Audubon: Baltimore Oriole (Field Guide: ID, General info.)
eBird Abundance Status and Trends Map: Baltimore Oriole (Map showing relative abundance of Baltimore Orioles during non-breeding period. Also see: eBird Range Status and Trends Map: Baltimore Oriole for the non-breeding period.)
Audubon: 10 Fun Facts About Baltimore Orioles (“From their brief taxonomic hiatus to their intense sugar cravings, there’s a lot to know about these brilliant birds”)
Feederwatch Food & Feeder Preferences Interactive (Interactive where you can pick Baltimore Oriole and see what they typically eat and feeders they like.)
Journey North: Baltimore Oriole (Citizen Science tracking project.)
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