A Colorful Migration of Songbirds is Underway


Backyard Nature Notes

A Colorful Migration of Songbirds Is Underway

By “Birdman” Mel Toellner


Across Pond Boss country there are dozens of migrating species arriving on your property and in your backyard every year, April–June.

Not only Orioles, but Tanagers, Warblers, Juncos and multiple species return at this time to favorite nesting habitats across the country. As you head out to your favorite fishing spot, don’t forget to take along an easy-to-use Birding Field Guide (I recommend Stan Tekiela’s many states bird guides) and a good pair of binoculars. I guarantee you’ll enjoy the show!

In my yard and property as well as most of yours, colorful orange Orioles will be returning from their Central American winter vacations. They are the most-often attracted, and viewed, returning migrants. There are three different Orioles that make up the vast majority of the Oriole population; the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles are primarily located east of the Rockies and the Bullock’s Orioles roam across the western third of the U. S.

How do you attract Orioles? 

The key is having food sources out for them when they arrive. 

My number one recommendation is to use a three-fold approach; have fruit, jelly, and nectar available. Offer all three of these in bright orange feeders for best results! The favorite fruit of Orioles are oranges. Offer them cut in half, fleshy side up. Don’t have a feeder? In our previous home we had a wire fence with pointy-topped fence posts. I had great success attracting Orioles by spearing orange halves on several fence posts. I made a runway for Orioles to land. It is easily visible when they flew over. Put out multiple orange halves. Orioles are hungry when they arrive and will move on if you don’t offer enough food to help them refuel. Quality Oriole nectar feeders have larger openings for Orioles to feed and a lot higher capacity due to an Oriole’s vivacious appetite and attractive feeders should be bright orange. I do recommend using an Oriole nectar like our Songbird Essential brand that contains “all-natural color sources and no dyes” as that attracts and holds more Orioles to your feeders than a plain sugar/water mix.

You will have the best luck attracting and keeping Orioles on your property if you also offer jelly. While many people recommend using grape jelly, my first and best experience with attracting Orioles was with all-natural home-made blackberry jelly that my mom made. That went well until Mom came to visit!

Since then, I’ve reviewed every set of data I can find and now offer Orioles a combination of all-natural blackberry and grape jelly made with pure fruit juices and cane sugar—no dyes, no artificial preservatives, and most importantly, no corn syrup (most store-bought jelly are full of corn syrup). There are studies showing that songbirds that eat a lot of jelly containing corn syrup can have trouble with spraddle legs. My family still raises corn but I feel strongly that jelly should not contain corn syrup. When you offer fruit or nectar, be prepared to offer a large amount of the above jelly. Orioles love it and often decide to build their nest near a jelly food source if other conditions are right. 

One last recommendation regarding feeding Orioles; Fruit, jelly, and nectar are all food sources that ants love. Always have these feeders under a nectar protector ant moat filled with water. Ants can’t swim and your Oriole food will be protected from them with an ant moat.

When you first notice Orioles on your property, you will probably hear them before you see them. Baltimore Orioles are easier to locate than Orchard Orioles as they often sing from a tree top. The male’s bright orange color is easier to spot than the cinnamon/brick orange color of the male Orchard Oriole, who hangs out most of the time around the ground. When looking for Bullock Orioles, you will see what looks like a Baltimore Oriole (with a large white wing patch) with an orange face with a black outline.

Our Baltimore Orioles here in Missouri and elsewhere have a sound, that while difficult to describe, is one you’ll never forget once you’ve learned it. Its flute-like whistle causes my head and ears to quickly turn to locate it. Put your feeders near the edge of your yard at first, as Orioles can be shy at times. Having said that, I have good luck putting feeders on a yard crane at the edge of my yard and then after Orioles have started feeding from it, move it closer and closer where I can enjoy watching the Orioles feed.

Can you encourage Orioles to nest on your property? Habitat-appropriate material for making their pendulous nest is a key factor. Their nest may be as much as 8 inches in length and is often supported from tips of branches that hang out over open areas such as rivers or roads. Areas with lots of cottonwood and willow trees, close to running and standing water are favored for nesting. Another attraction also seems to be horses, as horsehair seems to be used when available by Orioles to build their nests. Orioles are often seen stripping strips of plant-like milkweed stalks, so plant native milkweeds to attract Orioles as well as to help Monarch butterflies.

Like it is with most insect-eaters (90% of an Oriole’s diet is insects), eliminating use of pesticides and herbicides on your property is a big key in attracting and keeping Orioles. The male Oriole will defend a breeding area of several acres while the female normally does all of the weaving of the nest over a 5-8-day period. She’ll then lay 4-5 pale-gray to bluish eggs which she will incubate for 12-14 days. The babies are then fed by both mom and dad until they fledge in 12-14 days. For several days they’ll hop around the nest area, test their wings nearby for several weeks, and then depart for life on their own, and join mature birds as they head back south in late August and September in most areas. Enjoy them while they are in your area!




The other colorful, arriving migrants to keep an eye out for are Indigo Buntings, Tanagers, Red-breasted Grosbeaks, and Tanagers. Just like different birds’ group into feeding flocks in winter, they also migrate in mixed groups northward from Central America winter habitats. As Orioles and Hummingbirds appear, keep your eye out for Indigo Buntings, whose brilliant florescent blue color will be a real treat to see. They are attracted to my feeders with a mix of fine chopped sunflower chips and thistle seed blend. Many springs I see one or two Indigo Buntings in with a bunch of Gold Finches chowing down. I also keep some white millet on a ground tray feeder at the edge of the yard near our woods as they like to pop out for a bite of it.

Tanagers are the final brightly colored migrant I recommend you keep an eye out for. These include the Western Tanagers (west of the Rockies) whose males have a bright red head, yellow body and black wings. Western Tanagers commonly feed in backyards that offer fruit and water sources. Scarlet Tanagers are the most brilliant of all red birds. These are seen in the northern parts of the U.S. east of the Dakotas and extend down into the central U.S. Summer Tanager are common in southern parts of the U.S. from southern California to New Jersey. The male is a bright rose-red color throughout the year. You most often see Tanagers feeding in tree tops, but offering apples, oranges, and other fruit is the best way to attract all three to your property.

Nothing in avian nature is more beautiful than days that these colorful migrants are staying on your property. Get your binoculars and a good bird guide out and enjoy the show! Remember, “Nature is a stress reliever from God. Take time to listen to the bird’s sing.”

Questions, reach out to me at mel@songbirdessentials.com.


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