The breathtaking beauty of the orioles inspires many of us to turn our backyards into oriole welcome stations.
Feeders are the easiest and most effective bait for immigrant orioles. The birds occasionally use sunflower seeds and suet, but prefer sweeter dishes. Oranges attract orioles and give them a healthy source of food. Some birdhouses are designed for serving orange halves, but simply placing orange halves with the fruit side up on a railing or platform house works just as well.
Some sugar-water feeders have large perches to accommodate both hummingbirds and orioles. Never use food coloring – these are unhealthy and absolutely unnecessary. Make sugar water roughly the same concentration as natural nectars. Most authorities say they use a quarter of a cup of sugar per cup of water – the average concentration of nectar. During cold, humid periods, one-third of a cup of sugar per cup of water is still in natural areas, providing extra calories for trembling birds.
You don’t have to boil the water unless you are making large amounts for cooling. Boiled or not, sugar water starts fermenting as soon as it is made, and the warmer it is, the faster the fermentation will continue. Change boiled or uncooked sugar water as soon as it’s cloudy at all and every few days, cloudy or not, in hot weather.
Orioles love jelly, but feeding them is controversial. (See my column on jelly controversies from the September / October 2017 issue here.) No studies confirm that jelly is either healthy or unhealthy for birds, but what tastes good to birds or humans isn’t always nutritious. Small birds can get caught in jelly. Therefore only offer it in containers that are too small for small birds to pass through or fall into. I use glass tops and also spoon jelly into freshly emptied orange halves; When the jelly is gone, they are composted.
Some jellies contain artificial sweeteners that birds will deny both carbohydrates and calories, and they are potentially dangerous. I use homemade or store-bought jelly that is sweetened with sugar. No studies have confirmed the benefits or dangers of high fructose corn syrup, but I think it’s safer than sorry.
Most backyards that attract orioles during migration cannot keep them during the breeding season. Orioles usually nest near ponds, rivers, and other natural water sources in tall shade trees with slender outer branches that are sturdy enough to support their purse-shaped nests, while too narrow to accommodate plundering squirrels, jays, and crows.
The ideal habitat for oriole also offers an abundance of natural insect food and a selection of native trees and shrubs that provide fruit from spring through fall. Some ornamental fruit trees bear poisonous fruits; Choose native varieties of mulberries, serviceberries, and flowering dogwood. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has some great suggestions here.
Even if your garden does not have a suitable nesting site, the orioles will begin to migrate as soon as the young are strong fliers. They appear in my own garden every year when the fruits of our cherry trees ripen. By then, the males will have stopped singing, and families and individuals tend to be calm and inconspicuous in the foliage. So I carefully scan the branches. Spring through fall, orioles are well worth the effort.
Laura Erickson on the pros and cons of feeding bird jelly
This article was first published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the May / June 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
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