The Orioles of Utopia
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© 2006-2015 - All Rights Reserved



Below are some oriole pictures which might help serve to unravel them a bit..... or may just confuse you more. I hope to fill it out with full coverage of the local types, but now several photos scattered about the website are joined, and I've added a number of others I've been collecting as I study them here.

A large number were taken through old grayed double windows and are grayish and slightly fuzzy, but serve to show the points of plumage for illustrative purposes.

First we'll have some general oriole info, then among the pix will be some more specific things like occurrence locally and or field marks to look for.

Eventually I'll get a page up with just the pictures. And a page with audio so you can hear songs and calls.

baltimore oriole

Baltimore Oriole



Orioles are in the family with blackbirds (Icteridae), so are also related to grackles and meadowlarks. They are sort of arboreal (tree dwelling) blackbirds. Males especially are brightly colored. Around Utopia we have 6 species, 5 of which breed locally, so it is pretty much Orioletopia.

One, Audubon's, is resident (present year-round) so the only to be found in winter (scarce). It was unknown here 20 years ago, a new immigrant rapidly expanding its range northward.

The other 4 breeding species are migratory, only present a few months to nest (when the insects are out) and wintering mostly in Mexico, some to Central America. The summer resident breeders are present here from mid-to-late March (Scott's and Hooded) or late April (Orchard and Bullock's) with departures ranging from August to early October for some.

Of breeding males, Scott's and Audubon's are black and yellow, while Hooded and Bullock's (scarce breeder) are black and orange. Orchard which is much smaller than others have males chestnut and black, unique among N.A. birds, and pretty darn sharp lookin'. The Bullock's is very common just off escarpment to our south.

Baltimore, a black and orange type similar to Bullock's does not breed, it is a scarce but regular migrant in spring, more common in fall, late August through Sept. for them. Will hit hummer feeders in September if they can get into them, and well worth it.

I have had the rare lucky days when I saw all 6 species here. Must be some of that Utopia stuff. Upon consideration, how many places in the U.S. can one see 6 species of orioles in a day? In a yard without starting the car? But yet, if you go out hunting them away from feeders, they can seem scarce.

The parasitic nesting cowbirds often choose orioles as hosts when they can get away with it, and have hit the smaller Orchard Oriole particularly hard. We need more cowbird traps and shooters out there, not just once a species is threatened. Managing is being pro-active. Man made the cowbird over-abundant, do we take no responsibility?

Besides nectar they obtain from flowers (pollinators), orioles are tremendous insect eaters (mostly in the way of caterpillars and "worms" in your trees) so very beneficial to have around. In addition to the fancy plumage males wear, they have wonderful songs of whistled notes often with gurgles and bubbly chatters, some of them are some of our most beautiful bird voices. Both sexes of the yellow ones (Scott's and Audubon's) sing, while Hooded and Orchard have great exhuberant flight song displays you might see if you watch them long enough.

Males are easy to identify, females not too tough but they do require careful observation of details. Bill size, shape, and structure is especially usable, note if decurved or straight. Hooded and Orchard always have a decurved upper mandible (of which Hooded's bill is twice as big as Orchard).

Know the standard basic field guides can be a bit weak or worse on immature plumages, those of the first year and change. The males take over a year to acquire the adult colors.

Most guides show one bird for first springs, a male, but males look one way in April, another in June, another in August, during that first spring and summer as they turn a year old, they often go through full body and wing molt. We hope to show some of these changes with photos here. And first spring and summer females don't look like adult females either. What your book didn't tell you that?

In many the immature males look like females with black bibs. They've black pear shaped bibs and lores (between eye and bill) in spring, and slowly change over, or sometimes more quickly at the end of, the first summer, to looking like a male plumage, via molt. Change is the main theme, variation running second.

Amongst birds, they are very intelligent, and we know far less about them than we think we do. I've seen them do things the experts would not believe.

Here are some photos and discussion about them.

audubon's oriole

I'm still working on a caption for this one.
1) If you can ID, age, and sex this,
you don't need this web page ....

2) Don't tell me these rectrices aren't in your book!?!
:)



Audubon's Oriole - Icterus graduacauda

Audubon's Oriole is the only year-round resident, yet the new colonizer of the bunch. Getting easy to hear from roads as becoming widespread, but still hard to see away from feeders. Some pairs in spring 2011 at Lost Maples, has been at Utopia Park rarely, just recently at Utopia on the River, and is numerous in the mesquite patches 4 miles south of Utopia along Hwy. 187. We had 10 at once daily in the yard one winter, while someone 5+ miles away on N. Little Creek had 17 at the same time!

They are not mapped for the area in virtually any books yet/still. Local ranchers and housewives knew they were here years before birders did. They've been present in numbers and probably resident locally along the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau where the brush country penetrates via drainages, since at least 2000, some certainly earlier.

Audubon's Oriole

Audubon's Oriole was formerly well-named, as Black-headed Oriole.  Note unmarked olive back in all ages, can be yellow-green on adult males.



Audubon's Oriole

Audubon's Orioles in winter use peanut feeders, peanut butter, sunflower seed and hummingbird feeders. (no cut and paste - got four in a frame once)



juvenile audubon's oriole

Juvenile Audubon's Oriole, June 12, 06, note graduated rectrices (tail feathers). This was likely the first ever documented juvenile (=breeding) on the Edwards Plateau (in hill country).



immature audubon's oriole

An immature Audubon's Oriole in December, so first winter. The head is mostly half black, the front half, down onto chest slightly with green rear-crown and nape until or through the first spring. This one was the first ever on the Uvalde CBC which I found at Ft. Inge.



audubon's oriole

A first-summer bird in August with some white-edged new feathers (greater coverts, a tertial, some remiges) coming in on otherwise old worn wing. Tail still juv./immature original issue year-old type. Some sheathed feathers on head as black fills in.



audubon's oriole

They can get testy with each other.



Vocalizations are varied as all orioles, with some whistled notes commonly heard that are 3-5 separate, single notes, loud and downslurred (not bubbly gurgling and slurred together) sometimes like " fee, few, feeww, feww, feeww" or yee, you, youuu, youuuuu, youuuu; somewhat mournful sounding. They also give quiet contact notes of "few" notes. They commonly give a rough blackbird-like "aarrng" that can sound remarkably like the Yellow-breasted Chat "aarrnk". That also can be repeated in series to sound chat or wren-like: "aarng aarng aarng aarng" in a scolding manner. I have some of their sounds on tape I can't even describe.

We do intend on getting some audio up in the future. I have mostly finished edited .wav files done for 80 species, but have a time or space problem - they're bigger files, but working on it.

Scott's Oriole - Icterus parisorum

Adult Scott's Orioles return in last half of March, most first-spring birds in April, and some stay as late as early October. Here, 99.999% have a long straight (rule straight) evenly tapered finely pointed bill. The basic ID key for Scott's vs. Audubon's is black in the back, all black in adult males, and present or visible in almost all other sexes or ages as spots or streaks. Almost all Scott's show some black or charcol in back. Their songs are one of the great American bird voices.

Scott's Oriole

Scott's Oriole, adult male, note black back.



Scott's Oriole

Scott's Oriole, adult male



female Scott's Oriole female Scott's Oriole

First year male and female Scott's Oriole have variable black on face, throat, and breast, females methinks increasing with age.



First spring/summer birds are very variable (yearlings). Males return looking similar to adult females, and over the summer molt into looking more like males. Both sexes in first spring and summer have wings that are worn brown with wingbars NOT of equal width, unlike earlier plumages and most books. I recorded a date of July 6 for a first summer male getting its first adult type tail feather of yellow base with black tip, about two-thirds the way grown in maybe at that date.

Scott's Oriole

Scott's Oriole, first spring bird, presumed female just getting some black on lower throat and breast. It was all yellow when it returned in April. The reddish tones on the breast is reflection from the hummingbird feeder.



Scott's Oriole

same bird as above, May 23, 2011



Scott's Oriole

A first spring-summer female, June 17. Note black in back not readily apparent, wingbars worn off, wings worn brown.
Note bill size, shape, and structure.



Scott's Oriole

A June 19 first summer male.



Scott's Oriole

First summers easily aged by worn off wingbars, brown flight feathers (primaries esp.) on wing. Note black in back not readily apparent. This one July 1. Note the brown wing with worn off bars seems typical for most first spring-summer orioles here, see the first spring/summer Hooded Orioles below.



Scott's Oriole

Juvenile (HY - hatch year) Scott's Oriole, probably male.
The reddish tone on underparts is feeder reflection.



Scott's Oriole

Juvenile Scott's Oriole, probably male.



Scott's Oriole

And here's one for the plumage particulars people. I would hate to find something like this where it was a vagrant and have to write a feather by feather description of it. The good news is you can't see this on a CBC. Tertial 1 was black and white, tertial 2 was missing, tert 3 was brown, oh man it's gonna be a long night ... and the moral is carry a camera.



August 6 is the date, a first summer male showing great contrast in the old worn dull brown year-old feathers in wing, and some brand spankin' new first adult type black feathers with crisp white edges, paint just dried. One retained juvenile rectrix (tail feather), bunch of new black adult types coming in. Ohhhh baby what a beauty. Two ages of tertials, new secondaries, old primaries. Bet you feather freaks are pretty excited over this one?   :)   yeah me too....

Scott's Oriole is one of America's greatest songsters. Many variations of a series of 3-6 whistled fluted notes run together as to be slurred or bubbly. The birds on east side of the valley do not sing like the ones on the west side, or those at Lost Maples. Much individual variation. Like most bird songs, species tonal quality and timbre is unique, i.e., it's not what they say, it's how they say it. Common calls are blackbird like, either an "ing" note or also often a loud guttaral "chuck" is given.

That's enough of Scott's for now.
On to Orchard Oriole.....

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Orchard is much smaller than all the other orioles, so you might not think it an oriole at first glance. But structurally it is clearly a small compact oriole, that goes 'chuck', or 'chuck-chuck' or 'mew', often. They have a great flight song display if you get lucky. They arrive in late April, and still nest in seemingly OK numbers, but are decidedly less common than in say the late 1980's.  Flocks of 10-20 may be seen in spring or fall migration, peak fall for them being August to early September here.

Orchard Oriole   Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole, adult male, the first year males are green above and yellower below like female, but with black bibs and lores (as young male Hooded below), but real green and yellow-green overall.



Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole, adult male, note the very short bill is slightly decurved. These are Texas Orchard Oriole (Oberholser) with a shorter exposed culmen than the nominate Eastern Orchard, and always has a distinct downcurved kink or droop near tip.



On Orchard note little round ping-pong ball shaped head and very narrow depth of bill, nowhere near as deep based as other orioles. The depth of bill at distalmost feathering at base is barely wider than eye, coupled with short tail creating the oft-cited "warbler-ish"look.

Females and immatures look closest to juvenile Hooded with olive above and yellower green below, but are much smaller, and especially of bill and tail, than Hooded.

Orchard Oriole

A worn adult female methinks, August 12.
Note short tail seems shorter than wing.



Orchard Oriole

I'm not sure of this one.... it was August 9, so it must be a 60-70 day old immature male as it seems a little black around the bill. Orchard returns in late April, the earliest young out in early June usually.




Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole, probably an adult female, immatures look similar. Note many immature and female Orchard Oriole I have seen here have dusky lores, that is, slight darkness between eye and bill. The female or immature Hooded Orioles I see here do not usually show this. Sometimes on young males it may start to show, barely, but not distinctly as often seen on Orchard here. Elsewhere other types of Hooded or Orchard may be different, but it might be a mark to watch for.



The Orchard Orioles I recorded singing here only finished songs with the downslurred wheer note typical of Eastern nominate birds 20% of songs, while 20% ended in scratchy notes as Howell says they do in Mexico, while 60% ended in piping whistled notes, apparently the Texas Orchard ending. Calls are a "chuck" often doubled, and a mew note reminiscent of grosbeak or tanager flight calls.

Finally, let me (probably not be the first to) say I think the choice of specific epitaph was spurius.   :)

Hooded Oriole - Icterus cucullatus

I must say the Hooded Oriole here is a beast compared to the southern California ones I grew up with. It really seems a different animal to me. The bill approaches a thrasher bill at times, a sense one would never get from a Nelson's Hooded out west. Male's bill is often noticeably larger than females.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, adult male. These Uvalde Co. breeders are per Oberholser (The Bird Life of Texas) the nominate cucullatus Hooded Oriole. There are three subspecies of Hooded Oriole in Texas. From Laredo south in deep south Texas are Sennett's which are redder of head than these. From Big Bend west are the southwestern Nelson's Hooded Oriole which are more yellow and to my eye slighter of build in both body and bill. In between are these 'Mexican' Hooded Oriole, cucullatus which are much darker orange in tone than Nelson's, but not as red-tinted as Sennett's to the south.



Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, adult male
Always note decurved bill in Hooded Oriole.
My those are thick sturdy legs.



Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, adult male



Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, female, worn off wingbars indicate a first-summer roughly a year-old.



Hooded Oriole

Many females in first spring/summer wear to having almost no wingbars, brown wings, and the central underparts (belly) wear pale much like Bullock's females.



Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, female, worn off wingbars indicate a first-summer roughly a year-old.



Hooded Oriole   Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, juveniles
These are just out of the nest with bills not yet fully grown.



juvenile Hooded Oriole

Another juvenile showing wingbars.
Olive above, yellower below with wingbars is a standard theme among non-adult male orioles.



Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole, juvenile male probably 3-5 months old (Sept.) starting to get black bib, which will extend to include lores by time it returns at nearly a year old.



Our imm. male Hooded comes in two color types or phases, orangish below (and grayer above) as above bird with male-like colors, and they may also be olive above and yellow below, like a female, but both will have the telltale black bib and lores their first spring and summer (throat in first fall - at least for the male-like orange birds). Both types occur together here.

Note field guides usually only show one type and don't mention the other, as can be seen perusing the various guides over the years, in case you were wondering why you were confused.   :)

Here's a recap of what you learned for bibbed imm. males:

Starting with Petersen, his Eastern guide shows a basic green above yellow below bird (female type). Then interestingly in the Mexican Petersen, he splits from his green-yellow Eastern version, with an orange below bird for an imm. male. I'll dig up some western Petersen and update with what they show, I think green-yellow type.

Then the Golden Guide in the revised edition has an orange below bird (male type). I thought the original was a female type green-yellow bird. Nat. Geo. Soc. (1st ed.) looks like they couldn't decide what they looked like and split the difference. The NGS 3rd edition shows a female type green above yellow below bird, the kind we were supposed to confuse with Orchard Oriole.

Note Nat.Geo. first-years may seem cartoonish if you know the birds well. Note the strange similarity between juvenile/immature/female wings and first year male wings, quite unlike those shown here on this page. Seems a bib colored on other ages and sexes was called a first-spring? No one did a better job of mis-leading me, or mis-construing the birds, than Nat. Geo., again. Nat. Geo's first spring orioles are unicorns, there is no such animal. Figments of someone's imagination.

More recently then Kaufman and Sibley show orange below birds with no mention of female types. The old Pough Audubon guide only describes it as "like female with bib" so green-yellow. Howell and Webb's Mexico field guide shows a green above yellow below type for Nelson's (far western subsps.) and an orange below type for the Yucatan Peninsula variety.

So one was left wondering if they changed from green and yellow female plumage to orangeish male-like plumage as they matured, or what because no one discusses two types of imm. males.

Perhaps some (unmated males?) change substantially over the summer here, but it is not common or all of them. Perhaps after breeding and departing this can happen on the winter grounds in Mexcio?  I've seen nice green and yellow birds with bibs stay that way all summer into September.

What I hadn't seen before was mention that while in some cases there may be subspecies reasons, also a) they can be color phases within the same population, and b) both color versions may occur together side by side such as here in Utopia.

Through the first summer the green and yellow usually one stays that way as does the orangish one.  Particularly if mated, no molt takes place. The orange below types can turn (wear) to a more brownish tone over gray-olive on upperparts in first spring. The yellow below ones stay more green above. At the end of summer some (mostly unmated ones) molt into their first adult male type plumage. Some in September may still be green/yellow with bibs, and unmolted still.

sub-adult Hooded Oriole

Here's a first spring male about a year old with black lores. It showed up in April like this, messy bib, and is mated. Usually the bib is neater and shaped more like adult male's.



Hooded Oriole Hooded Oriole

Another first summer (SY) Hooded Oriole, with neater bib and more green above and yellower below like female. Reddish is feeder reflection.



You might find the bibbed plumages in books called anything like first-spring or first-summer, but also called immature male or sub-adult male commonly, acceptable and correct. Might also be called SY - for second year, by banders, and another terminology scheme calls them first-alternate. So just to prove there is still room for more confusion, in simple layfolk terms, they're yearlings or tweenagers.   :)

Hooded Oriole

August 6

Another picture for the plumage particulars people, here's a first summer male on August 6 with new adult type feathers coming in (black greater coverts and rex) and quite obvious against the old dull worn feathers of the first year on wing, and yellow ones in tail.



Hooded Oriole

Now they make a lovely pair, don't they?    :)



This is a mated pair of first-years also on August 6 as above bird, and note they have barely begun molting, as they are still feeding young. So know timing of molt can be governed in part by biology, like whether or not the first-year bird is mated, most females are, many males are not. The unmated male in the pic above them looks much more robust, in much better condition, well into body molt with the rump becoming fairly orange now (since you can't see it I' mention it) probably having a good time, whilst the mated male appears bedraggled and haggard by any standard, as though he's been rode hard and put up wet.

If all of a sudden there are no more birdnews page updates, it is probably because my wife found this page.  :)

Hooded Oriole

August 20, some first-summers molt late in first summer into their first adult plumage, and it gets pretty ratty.



Hooded Oriole

Adult male September 12 has acquired 'winter' plumage with broad buffy edges to black back feathers. These wear off over winter to give us the black back in spring, but meanwhile making them standout less. Crown and nape have olive tips dulling them up too. All new wing feathers with big bright crisp white edges.



Baltimore and Bullock's Oriole - Icterus galbula and I. bullockii

Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles are superficially similar, Bullocks has an orange face with a black throat, eyeline and crown, and a big white upper-wing patch. Bullock's can be a scarce nester in big old mesquites here, especially where there are hackberries too, and are very common along roads just off the escarpment to our south, I see a number as roadkill each year.

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole male
Sorry about this fuzzy Bullock's picture,
but you get the idea.... it has a black crown.



Bullock's is the western version and Baltimore the eastern version of two sister species, that were for a while ridiculously lumped (AOU) as Northern Oriole.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole, male about to sample one of our fine Texas Persimmons.



Baltimore Oriole

Female Bullock's or Baltimore Oriole (both similar)



Baltimore is a scarce but regular migrant in spring, and sometimes in fall (Aug.-Sep.) one can encounter flocks 10-20 birds, often with other types of orioles mixed in, and which can move fairly quickly across the landscape. The flocks love to follow the line of the fading sun across the terrain as it sets, getting those last bugs.

So there is a 101 primer on the orioles of Utopia. The plumages aren't too hard to learn once you study a little.  :) It can get pretty exciting in late August or early September when I've had flocks of 20, 30, 40 or more orioles of 4-5 or more species moving through, seemingly coinciding with the ripening of the Texas Persimmon perfectly.

Ya want orioles? OK, as long as you don't take mine...... there is a hummingbird feeder they sell at supermegamart that has elliptical openings instead of small round holes (as you can see in one of the pictures). The orioles will learn to use these, though I wonder if Orchard's tongue is too short to reach the fluid, or are they too impatient to figure it out?

The best thing to feed is just like for hummingbirds, sugar water at 1 part (cup) sugar to 4 parts (cups) water. This most closely matches real actual nectar in flowers. It may take you a while to catch them, but once you do you can't get rid of 'em. Waking up to Scott's Oriole singing every morning 6 months of the year is pretty hard to beat.


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