The Magnificent Seven
In spring and summer, seven kinds of orioles emblazon the Texas landscape with fiery hues.
By Gary Clark
Most migrate from Latin America in the spring to nest in Texas and other parts of North America. But two species — Altamira and Audubon’s — reside in the state throughout the year.
They all share straight bills that taper to a dagger-like point, which pegs them as members of the Icterid family. Other family members include blackbirds, meadowlarks and grackles. Specialized muscles in the skull enable Icterids to pry open their beaks like opening a pair of scissors poked into soft earth. This helps them find buried insects. Orioles in particular possess powerful leg muscles that allow them to forage acrobatically among tree limbs in order to snatch bugs like caterpillars, or to dance on the edge of an orange half while plucking out the fruit.
The most striking difference between orioles and their Icterid kin is color, a striking orange, yellow and black cloak of plumes. Beyond brandishing bold colors, orioles have the curious habit of building a strange pendulous nest that looks like a dirty athletic sock strung up in a tree. On closer inspection, the nest reveals itself as an elegant, complex, gourd-shaped woven stocking. The female oriole weaves the nest from such materials as plant fibers, grass, string and Spanish moss and typically suspends it from a high branch on the outer edge of a tree. An entry hole at the top allows her to slip in unobtrusively to lay her eggs. Inside the surprisingly sturdy nest is a lining of soft fibers to protect the hatchlings. Male orioles contribute little to building the nest, but do assist with feeding duties.
In nesting territories, orioles feed themselves and their chicks a primary diet of insects, especially caterpillars and spiders. But orioles also go for the ripe fruit of mulberries, loquat and citrus.
When Texans think about orioles, they often visualize the Baltimore oriole if they live in the eastern half of the state, or the Bullock’s oriole if living in the western half. Yet Texas is also a nesting home for orchard, hooded and Scott’s orioles, as well as Audubon’s and Altamira orioles. The only regularly occurring North American oriole that doesn’t show up in Texas is the spot-breasted oriole of Florida, a species that is normally resident in Mexico but was introduced into Florida in 1949 from captive populations.
The Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) is the most conspicuous of the magnificent seven orioles of Texas. Male birds sport a bright orange body, which is offset by a black hood, black back and black wings with a prominent white wing bar. Females resemble males, but with muted orange tones and an incomplete black or brownish hood.
Baltimore orioles come streaming across the Gulf of Mexico onto Texas shores in spring as they migrate from wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America. Following a sudden springtime cold front, the birds make a quick onshore landing and dapple coastal woodlots and shrubs with glorious orange. At other times, they festoon backyards with their display of splashy colors. But few stick around to breed, and those that do stay prefer the north central or eastern panhandle region of Texas. Most journey to the eastern and midwestern regions of the United States and southern Canada to breed. Wherever they nest, they pick woodlands with an open understory, city parks and tree-lined suburban neighborhoods.
In 1973, scientists merged the Baltimore oriole, an eastern bird, and the Bullock’s oriole, a western bird, into a single species called the northern oriole. They lumped the birds together under one pedestrian name because the two birds hybridize where their ranges overlap in the Great Plains. Further physiological evidence, however, showed the Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles to be indeed separate species, and their original names were restored.
The Bullock’s oriole (Icterus bullockii) certainly looks like a cousin of the Baltimore oriole but is distinguished by a black cap rather than a black hood on its head and a distinct black line running horizontally through the eye. What immediately grabs attention is a big white wing patch, which looks like a smear of white paint on the wings, as opposed to the Baltimore’s more delicate ribbon-like wing bar. Females are rather plain looking with a yellow-orange wash on the face and throat. The English ornithologist and bird illustrator William Swainson (1789-1855) named the bird after his friend William Bullock (1773-1849), an English naturalist.
The Bullock’s oriole moves overland from its winter home in Mexico to Texas and then into other western states. The bird nests in West Texas with a few nesting on the Edwards Plateau and Southwest Texas. It favors riparian woodlands, orchards and ranch homes surrounded by cottonwood trees.
The male orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) looks as if it was made from a piece of red brick, burnt at the edges. Almost sparrow-sized, the bird appears to be a pixie sitting atop a bush or a tree with its deep orange body, black hood and black wings. But the yellow-green body of the female is markedly different. The orchard oriole gets its name for its propensity to nest in orchards.
An observer would be hard-pressed not to find orchard orioles along the Texas Coast during spring migration. Like the Baltimore orioles, the birds speed across the gulf in large numbers to Texas shores from their winter homes in Mexico, Central and South America. They nest in a vast portion of Texas, particularly in the eastern half of the state, in places with open woodlands and orchards. They also find mesquite trees throughout Texas quite attractive for nesting, which led the 20th century Texas ornithologist Harry Oberholser (1870-1963) to call the bird “the little mesquite oriole.”
Audubon’s oriole (Icterus graduacauda) is the only other oriole besides the Altamira oriole that calls Texas home all year, and it lives mostly in the brushlands of South Texas. The male and female are identical, with lemon-yellow bodies shrouded on the head and neck by sleek black hoods. The Audubon’s oriole looks like a flying work of art, so it’s appropriately named after the great 19th century bird artist and ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).
The bird’s range covers the eastern and western parts of Mexico, as well as South Texas. Due to clearing of thorn forests and riparian lands for agriculture in the 20th century, the bird is much less common than it was a hundred years ago. The Audubon’s oriole is frustrating to glimpse due to its notorious penchant for skulking among tree branches and singing teasingly in a soft whistle.
The hooded oriole (Icterus cucullatus) is a handsome yellow-orange bird with a prominent black bib. It got the moniker “hooded” supposedly for the resemblance of its black bib to a monk’s cowl. The female hooded oriole is drab gray on top and pale yellow below.
The bird migrates overland from northern Mexico into Texas and the desert southwest of the U.S. It nests in Texas among the wooded edges of the Rio Grande from Brownsville to Big Bend National Park and, to a lesser extent, in the Hill Country around Uvalde and Concan. In recent years, some have remained in South Texas for the winter rather than migrating back to Mexico, perhaps due to the prevalence of backyard hummingbird feeders and tall ornamental palm trees.
The Altamira oriole (Icterus gularis) lives in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and no place else in North America. Almost the size of a blue jay or the Valley’s green jay, it is the largest oriole in North America, with a yellowish-orange body and coal-black throat. Male and female birds look alike. The name derives from Altamira, Mexico, but its former name was Lichtenstein’s oriole, in honor of the German zoologist Martin Henrich Lichtenstein (1780-1857).
The Altamira oriole, which ranges south of the border from Mexico to Nicaragua, was first documented in Texas at Browns-ville in 1938, and the first Texas nest was discovered in the Rio Grande Valley in 1951. The bird has since become a relatively common year-round resident throughout the lower Valley.
Scott’s oriole (Icterus parisorum) is a look-alike to the Audubon’s oriole except that it possesses a black rather than a yellow back and shows up in a dramatically different area of Texas — the Big Bend and Edwards Plateau regions. The female differs from the male by having a washed-out appearance to its black hood. The name is in honor of Winfield Scott (1786-1866), the commanding American general in the Mexican-American War.
The Scott’s oriole is a bird of arid deserts and mountains, such as the ones found in the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas and Mexico. It often perches smartly atop a yucca or century plant, singing a cheerful set of whistled notes. The bird occasionally wanders out of its normal range in the desert southwest to places like the Texas Gulf Coast and Panhandle. Recent evidence indicates the bird may be expanding its nesting range farther into western states such as Colorado, Utah and Idaho.
In December 2004, a streak-backed oriole (Icterus pustulatus) was spotted in oak trees at Brazos Bend State Park near Houston. The bird normally lives in arid and semi-arid regions of western Mexico and Central America, showing up on rare occasions in Arizona and southern California. Could this mean that Texas now has a Magnificent Eight? The sighting may have been a one-time vagrant, but keep your eyes peeled for flashes of orange and black. You never know what might show up in the springtime skies over Texas.