The return of spring brings many migrant birds back to the United States. One of the most highly anticipated returns by bird lovers is the beautiful oriole. With about 8 species of orioles spending their breeding season in the U.S., you can find orioles just about everywhere. Brilliant shades of black, orange and yellow dart among the treetops. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that you don’t get any orioles at your birdseed feeders. They aren’t interested in seed, and are a bit skittish about visiting backyards. But with a little extra effort and the right enticements, we’ll show you how to attract orioles to your yard.
How to Attract Orioles
1. Offer sugary foods
Probably the best thing you can do to attract Orioles is to offer them the sugary foods they love in the springtime. The most popular foods to leave out to attract orioles to your backyard are grape jelly, oranges, and nectar.
- Grape jelly: feed smooth grape jelly in a small dish, only leave out as much as can be eaten in a day and put out fresh jelly each day. This avoids spoiling and bacteria growth. Look for no sugar added and organic jelly when possible. Even healthier for the birds, chop up some grapes and offer those!
- Oranges: cut an orange in half, simple as that! Hang it from a pole, or even impale it on nearby tree branches. As long as it’s visible to the birds and secure enough to stay put. Swap out the orange halves each day or two as they dry out quickly and will spoil and grow mold.
- Nectar: you can make your own nectar the same way you make hummingbird nectar, only with a lower sugar ratio of 1:6 (sugar:water) rather than the 1:4 ratio for hummingbirds. The nectar feeder for orioles will have to have a large perch and large size feeding holes to accommodate their beak size.
Most oriole feeders have pegs for offering oranges and small cups for offering the jelly. This bright orange model is one of our favorites for orioles. See our article on best bird feeders for orioles for more tips and recommendations.
2. Put food out early
Orioles are migratory. They spend their winters down in central and south America, then travel back into the U.S. and Canada in the early spring and stay through the summer to have their young. It is important that you put out any oriole-specific food 2-3 weeks BEFORE you expect to see them. While orioles will use certain backyard bird feeders, they aren’t a common backyard bird and much prefer to find natural sources of food. You want them to notice your food as soon as they arrive back from migration. At this point they need the extra energy boost from their long travels, and may still have further to go before they reach their nesting ground. If they identify your yard as a source of food early, they will continue to visit. However if they find other food sources first, it is unlikely they will come to your yard to investigate.
When do the orioles return?
You can use the recorded sightings from pages such as eBird and Journey North to look more closely at your area to see when people report their first orioles. However you can use these dates as a general guideline:
- Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole: these orioles of the eastern United States will appear first in the southern states of Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama as early as the end of February but definitely by March. They then move steady northward and will show up in New England and the Great Lakes by late April / early May.
- Bullock’s Oriole: these western orioles will appear first in Arizona and California in early March and will head northward to most mid-west to western states by late April / early May.
- Scott’s Oriole: these orioles are only found in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and parts of Texas. They tend to arrive back in the U.S. towards the end of March with their peak being early April to mid May.
This brings us to our next point.
3. Make sure your feeder is visible
The feeder has to be easily visible from the treetops. Orioles spend most of their time up in the high treetops (mainly deciduous trees) and will need to be able to see your food from up there.
Put oriole feeders in a nice open spot in your yard they can spot while flying over. Don’t hide them too close to the house or underneath a heavy canopy of tree branches. Orioles are attracted to bright colors that indicate fruit or flowers. Many manufacturers will color oriole feeders bright orange to take advantage of this fact. A bright orange feeder will send out a beacon to any orioles nearby to come and investigate.
4. Switch food offerings in the summer
After the orioles have reached their final destination and chosen their breeding ground, they switch up their food. By late spring / early summer, they are getting nests ready and raising their young. During this period they need more protein and nutrients in their diet and will consume more insects than fruit (although fruit does remain part of their diet). If you managed to attract some orioles offering the sugary spring foods, switch over to more protein filled offerings in the late spring. Mealworms are a great choice. Orioles will also occasionally eat suet.
Why did my orioles disappear?
So you put out some oranges, and were enjoying watching the orioles come to your yard daily. But then all of a sudden poof, they’re gone! Where did they go? Why won’t they come back? Many people may experience 2-4 weeks of oriole activity in the spring and then not see them again for the rest of the year. This has been the case for me personally. I can usually get them to visit my yard for about 3 weeks in May if I leave out a supply of fresh oranges. But by the end of May they always stop coming around.
Orioles much prefer natural food sources, and are less inclined to visit backyard feeders once nature starts to provide what they need. By the end of spring flowers have bloomed and nectar is available. Trees and shrubs have begun to produce fruits and berries. Insects have grown in abundance. Simply put, they don’t need your food anymore.
However, if an oriole builds a nest in a tree near your property, you have a much higher likelihood of them returning for food throughout the season. It’s all about proximity of food to their nest.
5. Have tall trees on your property
Orioles don’t nest in tree cavities or bird houses, nor do their nests look like what you typically think of when you think of a birds nest. Instead, the female orioles weave a hanging basket that is sometimes described as “sock-like”. They use slim and bendable materials such as grass, vine, bark strips, animal hair or even man-made objects like fishing line and twine. Over the course of 7-15 days she builds the nest in three stages. First weaving the outer bowl, then adding more springy fibers to the inner bowl, and finally a layer of soft fibers and downy feathers to line the inside where the eggs will be cushioned.
These nests hang high in tall trees, usually from the ends of thin, delicate branches that won’t support the weight of larger birds that may pose a threat to her eggs, like crows and hawks. They also do most of their food foraging in the treetops looking for insects and fruits. So don’t cut down those tall trees on your property, and consider planting new ones. This will increase your likelihood of nesting orioles or orioles frequenting your trees for food.
6. Keep orioles feeders separate
If possible make the oriole feeding station separate from your other bird feeders. Orioles are a little on the shy side and might not feel comfortable venturing too close to a feeder full of loud and rambunctious songbirds. The best would be an open spot (visibility) close to shrubs and other cover that they can retreat to if they feel threatened. However if this is not possible don’t worry about it. I offered oranges from my regular bird feeding station since I didn’t have another good spot, and they still visited.
7. Plant fruiting trees and shrubs
Orioles are fruit eaters and will be more likely to visit your yard if you have fruiting trees and shrubs. Planting some food bearing trees and shrubs can help attract orioles and many other species of birds to your yard. As always, be sure to check that what you plant is native to your region. For orioles consider blackberries, raspberries, huckleberry, elderberry, mulberry, wild cherry and dogwood.
Orioles also enjoy nectar, so brightly colored flowers (especially orange) that produce nectar are a good choice. Some examples are trumpet honeysuckle, trumpet vine, cardinal flower, columbine, salvias, jewelweeds and bee balm.
8. Minimize pesticide use
As we mentioned above, once the insect population increases in the late spring the orioles consume them as a large part of their diet. They will also be feeding their young mainly insects. While you are less likely to see them hopping on your lawn looking for bugs, they will be visiting your trees and shrubs. Be cautious when spraying any vegetation in your yard with pesticides or other treatments. See if you can find organic and non-toxic options. Or even better, no chemicals at all!
9. Provide water.
As always, a supply of clean water will attract many kinds of birds. Orioles are no exception and need water for bathing and drinking. They are larger birds and would do better with a bath that had a decent sized basin. Water wigglers, fountains, and drippers will help create that attractive sound of moving water that birds look for.
Whether you are lucky enough to have orioles nearby for the whole summer season, or only get a quick glimpse in the spring, they are a real treat to behold. Few birds that we come into contact with on a regular basis have such vibrant colors and songs. Good luck and happy birding!