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A Bird in Hand

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Photo by Kevin Cole, used under Creative Commons Photo by Kevin Cole, used under Creative Commons

The Bullock's Oriole - bright, beautiful and bold!


Most everyone has probably heard of the Baltimore Orioles. They are a professional baseball team that plays out of Baltimore, Maryland. And their mascot is—duh—a Baltimore Oriole. Some people know this, too. Even more, the Baltimore Oriole is an actual bird, which spends its summers in the eastern part of the United States, where it is quite common. Some people know this as well. But what many folks around here may not realize is that there is an oriole that calls our neck of the woods home in the summertime, too —the Bullock’s Oriole.  Yes, we can boast of our own oriole. Now we just need a ball team to go with our bird. Go Bullocks!  

At one time the Bullock’s Oriole and the Baltimore Oriole were grouped together into one specie, the Northern Oriole. They are very similar birds and they do tend to hybridize where their ranges overlaps in the Great Plains. But the alchemists in the ornithological world have determined that they are actually only cousins, at best. Hence, we have Bullock’s and Baltimores. Sounds like a high-end women’s clothier.  

Roughly the same size and build of a blackbird, the Bullock’s oriole is an extremely distinctive bird. This is especially true of the male. He is flagrantly colored in a bright orangish yellow, looking very similar to his East Coast cousin—that bird that works for the ball team. Complementing the orange duds is a stylish black cap, a black goatee, and a matching black bandit’s mask. The wings are also black, but trimmed with huge white patches. Very striking. Here is a gorgeous bird. The female is quite distinctive, as well. She lacks the black highlights on the head, but is mostly bright yellow, though it fades to buff towards the belly. The black is not quite as dark on the back, but the white highlights are still there on the wings.  

To me the most remarkable things about the Bullock’s Orioles are the nests that they weave. Large, complex, woven things that look like huge socks hanging from a branch. I recently watched a female Bullock’s working on her nest. How can an animal without hands weave something as marvelous as that? Simply unfathomable.  Amazing.  

I once saw the remains of a Bullock’s Oriole nest that was woven from blue baling twine. That thing lasted through three winters before finally falling from the tree. But be warned that the nests can be tough to find. First find the bird, then look for the nest.  

Bullock’s are not the easiest birds to locate. As with many birds, such as the Gray Catbird I wrote about last month, they might be “common” but only locally. In other words, they are common, but only in their particular habitat. If you want to find a Bullock’s Oriole, look for tall cottonwoods near water. Granted, they will nest in other trees, but cottonwoods seem to be their favorites.  

I have never had a Bullock’s Oriole visit my backyard, but my family back in Minnesota use special nectar feeders—similar to hummingbird feeders—to attract the Baltimore Oriole. In addition, people back in the Midwest nail open packets of grape jelly—those individual serving sizes as you find in restaurants—right into the bark of a tree. The orioles love grape jelly. You know that you are in oriole country when none of the diners have any grape jelly packets left for your toast. I kid you not!

Interestingly, IdahoBirds.net, which touts itself to be the “your comprehensive online resource for wild birds and birding in the State of Idaho” states that the breeding of Bullock’s Orioles is “suspected” but not “confirmed” in our area. Really? I guess the Bullock’s Orioles I saw didn’t get the memo.    

The Bullock’s Oriole is simply one more of those feathered jewels we have in our area. You might have to exert a little bit of energy to find them, but you won’t be disappointed. Grab the binoculars and head for those cottonwoods, the taller the better. You know where I am talking. But once you discover them, you’ll be amazed. And why wouldn’t a local baseball team not proudly call themselves the Bullock’s Orioles? Happy birding! 


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, Bullocks Oriole, oriole

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