The official Maryland State Bird is the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula). The Baltimore oriole belongs to the Icteridae family of New World birds. This family includes more than 30 species of orioles, along with many different species of blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, meadowlarks, and more. The Baltimore oriole was named for Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, an English nobleman designated to govern the colony of Maryland. The bird shared the golden orange and black colors on the Calvert family’s crest, and it was thus named in honor of the Baltimore legacy. Maryland chose the Baltimore oriole as its official state bird in 1947.
Today the colors from the crest of Lord Baltimore can be found reflected in many emblems of the state of Maryland, from the state flag to the state insect, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and the state flower, the black-eyed Susan. Even the major league baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, use orange, black, and white as their team colors.
Where Does the State Bird of Maryland Live?
Baltimore Orioles breed throughout the eastern half of the United States and central Canada, east of the Rocky Mountains. Their range also extends south through Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern parts of South America. The breeding range of the Baltimore oriole overlaps somewhat with the Bullock’s oriole, which resides in the western half of the United States. In 1973, ornithologists combined the two species, giving them the name of Northern Oriole, due to their occasional interbreeding. But based on DNA analysis, the two species were once again separated in 1995, and Baltimore got its namesake oriole back.
The Baltimore oriole can find suitable habitats all over Maryland. This bird lives mainly in open woodland areas with large trees. They inhabit forest edges, orchards, wooded parks, and even backyards with suitably large trees. They do not tend to live deep in heavily forested areas or in overly open grasslands with no trees or large shrubs. Ornithologists encourage people to look high in leafy, deciduous trees if they want to see Baltimore orioles.
Baltimore orioles eat a wide variety of foods, including insects and other invertebrates, different types of fruits, and nectar. Their diet varies based on the season. In the summer, when they breed and feed their young, they usually eat insects and other invertebrates that supply lots of protein. Baltimore orioles do not seem very picky about what type of insects they will eat. They catch flies, moths, and other flying insects on the wing. They also consume lots of beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, snails, and a wide variety of assorted caterpillars and other larvae.
Although Baltimore orioles eat many types of fruits, they prefer dark-colored varieties. They eat cherries, blueberries, mulberries, and other fruits, including tropical fruits such as oranges and bananas.
Backyard birders can attract Baltimore orioles to their yards by placing appropriate feeders early in the season and filling them with foods that these birds love. They adore mealworms, both live and dried. They also love jelly, particularly grape jelly, in bowl feeders. Orange slices, halves, or wedges also make a perfect treat. Be careful, though, when offering nectar. Baltimore orioles have a hard time feeding from hummingbird feeders, as their beaks have the wrong shape to fit the narrow openings. Make sure, if offering nectar, to provide a separate oriole feeder with appropriate openings.
Where Does the State Bird of Maryland Nest?
Baltimore orioles form mostly monogamous pairs for a single season. They may engage in copulation outside their mated pair. Males arrive in their breeding grounds from late April through May. They compete for territories and begin their courtship by making displays to attempt to draw the attention of a female. Mating usually occurs in May or early June.
The female builds a hanging, pouch-like nest in a tall, leafy tree, such as an elm, maple, cottonwood, willow, or even a fruit tree. She constructs the tightly woven nest from fine plant materials, animal hair, and other slender fibers. She typically places the nest about 20 to 30 feet above the ground, near the end of a branch. Males do not help with nest building or incubating the eggs.
In the fall, Baltimore orioles that nest in the United States and Canada begin to migrate south for the winter. Most of them head to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, or northern South America. Some stay in far southeastern portions of the United States, especially if adequate food sources remain available.
Baltimore Oriole Eggs
Pairs of Baltimore orioles raise a single clutch each year, consisting of an average of four eggs, but ranging from three to seven. The female lays light-colored, gray to bluish-white eggs. She incubates them on her own for 12 to 14 days. The male stays close by and defends the territory during this time. Baltimore oriole chicks are altricial, meaning they hatch naked and helpless with their eyes closed. Both parents feed the chicks regurgitated foods for the next 12 to 14 days, as they develop rapidly. Baltimore oriole chicks fledge by the time they are two weeks old.
Brown-headed cowbirds do not have an easy time parasitizing the nests of Baltimore orioles. However, they sometimes successfully lay eggs in their nests. Baltimore orioles easily spot the eggs of the brown-headed cowbird, though, and they either eat the eggs or expel them from their nests.
What Do Baltimore Orioles Look Like?
The State Bird of Maryland is bright, colorful, and so very easy to spot. Baltimore orioles exhibit sexual dimorphism, with adult males having brighter orange or golden and darker black coloring than females or juveniles. They have a shiny black head with a dark gray bill and a black back. They also have black wings with an orange bar at the shoulder and one wide, white wing bar and white markings near the tips. The rest of the bird’s feathers, including the plumage on the breast, underparts, rump, and tail, range from bright orange to golden. Males do not attain their full adult plumage until the fall of their second year. Until then, they resemble the females of the species.
Female Baltimore orioles have more subdued colors with wider variability than males. Their backs may be brownish gray, with some yellow to yellowish orange showing through. Their heads, also, may vary from yellowish to orangish, sometimes with brownish feathers interspersed. They have lighter brownish-gray wings than the males, and they have two smaller white wing bars instead of one wide bar. The rest of their plumage is generally dull yellow to yellowish orange, not as vibrant as the male.
These beautiful songbirds reach lengths of around 6.7 to 7.5 inches. They average about the same size as the eastern bluebird. They weigh between about 1.1 and 1.4 ounces and have a wingspan of about 9 to 12 inches.
Are Baltimore Orioles Rare?
The Baltimore oriole has a strong population throughout its range. The range of this species is vast and mostly non-fragmented. Baltimore orioles can find suitable habitats throughout the state of Maryland and most of their range. This migratory bird has an estimated population of about 6 million mature adults, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is listed as a species of Least Concern with a population that is stable.
Although the state bird of Maryland is neither rare nor threatened within its range, it may be more difficult to spot than many other species. Baltimore orioles tend to select their territory early in the season, and if you don’t have feeders out and ready, they probably will not frequent your backyard that year. They also nest so high in leafy trees that their nests may be invisible to all but the most observant birdwatchers.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com
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