An Unexpected Visitor Stops by for a Drink

Baltimore Orioles belly up to the hummingbird bar

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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       We’ve discovered that almost no matter where you are, hummingbirds will find a newly hung feeder in a matter of days, if not hours. So when we set up camp in upstate New York just as the fall migration was taking off, we assumed we could count on thirsty visitors before long.   

A Baltimore Oriole looks over a hummingbird feeder, filled with nectar these birds love. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

       The day after we put up our portable nectar feeder on a lower branch of a maple tree, however, one of the first visitors wasn’t a hummingbird at all. It was a Baltimore Oriole, twice the size and about 10 times the weight of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird common there.

       Too large for the tiny perches on the feeder, the oriole at first seemed to wrestle with the contraption to get a foothold. He climbed on the top for a time, then draped himself over the edge and sipped the sweet sauce practically upside down. The feeder swung like a trapeze, tipping this way and that as this bird tried out different tactics. Most intriguing, the hummingbirds that also found their way to our campsite, sat patiently in the nearby branches, waiting for their turn as if they’d been through this before.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbirds waits his turn at the feeder.

     In fact, the hummingbirds and orioles share the same love of the sugar water. The spread of backyard feeders with the enormous popularity of hummingbirds has taught orioles how to maneuver their way around these undersized stations. Still, we’d never seen this before, and have always loved the spectacular sight of a Baltimore Oriole, so we sat back and spent the next several days getting our fill.

One of the many feeders built for Baltimore Orioles, available online and at bird stores.

       Many backyard birders all over the eastern half of the continent have discovered that orioles love all variety of juices and fruits, especially oranges and their peels. You can draw orioles your yard by tacking slices up where they can reach them. They love all kinds of jellies, especially grape, apple and orange. You can buy feeders designed for orioles. They look much like hummingbird feeders only larger to suit the oriole’s size, like this Fliteline Oriole Feeder available online and at pet stores.


   But because hummingbird feeders are so much more plentiful, orioles have learned to make do, as did the visitors during our camping trip. Eventually, the several orioles learned to balance on the hummingbird perch and stay still enough to keep from rocking the boat. We did notice that the nectar (here’s a recipe from the Smithsonian for hummingbird feeders) drained a little faster than usual, but we kept it filled to make sure that all the birds – big and small – got plenty to drink.

       Here’s the migration animation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that shows the seasonal moves of the Baltimore Oriole, stretching from as far west as Alberta, Canada, and as far south as Colombia and Venezuela.

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