Orioles are colorful, popular songbirds, easily recognized and favorites of birders and non-birders alike. Even experienced birders can be surprised to learn that more than 60 species of orioles can be found worldwide. While only nine of those species live in the United States, and some of those only in very limited areas, it can be interesting to compare the different types of orioles and learn how these birds are connected and what traits they share.
Types of Orioles in North America
Orioles belong to one of two scientific bird families. The Oriolidae family is the “Old World Orioles" of Africa, Europe, and Asia and contains 31 distinct bird species. The Icteridae bird family contains the 33 “New World Orioles" species, along with closely related blackbirds, meadowlarks, and grackles.
While orioles in both bird families look physically similar in size and coloring and often share habits and dietary preferences, genetic research has shown the two families are not closely related. Instead, orioles around the world have gained these similarities through convergent evolution, the process of developing similar traits because of similarities in environment, diet, and behavior.
The nine species of orioles found in the United States are all Icteridae birds. While they are all closely related, they have physical deference and vastly different ranges.
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)
The Baltimore oriole, the most familiar oriole in the United States, has a black hood, bright orange underparts, and black and white wings with an orange wedge on the shoulder. These birds are found throughout the eastern United States and into southern Canada in the summer and spend winters in Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. Known for their rich, musical whistling song, Baltimore orioles are always welcome at feeding stations.
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)
Though this eastern oriole has a similar color pattern to the Baltimore oriole, their orange parts are a much darker brick or burnt orange shade, and they have less white on the wings. Orchard orioles also share the same range as their brighter Baltimore cousins but venture slightly less far to the north or south Their whistling song is generally a faster tempo than other orioles.
Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockiorum)
The most familiar and widespread oriole in the western United States, the Bullock's oriole was once lumped together with the Baltimore oriole as a single species, the northern oriole. Today they are considered separate species, and it is easy to tell the Bullock's oriole apart because they only have a black cap, chin, and thin mask rather than a full black hood, and they lack the orange shoulder wedge. Bullock's orioles are found throughout the western United States in summer and spend winters in Mexico. In general, their songs are slightly less musical and may have a raspy quality.
Though the color pattern of the Scott's oriole is similar to the Baltimore oriole, this bird is a bright, lemony yellow where the Baltimore oriole is orange. The Scott's oriole also has more black extending down onto the breast. These orioles are found in southwestern United States and northern Mexico during the summer months and throughout Mexico in the winter. Another similarity they share with the Baltimore oriole is their rich, whistling song.
Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)
These orioles are very similar to hooded orioles, but their orange coloration is slightly darker, and they have a broad orange wedge on the shoulder that hooded orioles lack. The Altamira oriole also has a much more limited range and is only seen in the southern tip of Texas and into Mexico and Central America as far as Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Unlike more northern oriole species, these birds do not migrate. Their song has a somewhat raspy quality.
Audubon's Oriole (Icterus graduacauda)
These orioles are yellow like the Scott's oriole but have a dull yellow back instead of a black back, and their black hood is less extensive, especially on the breast. Audubon's orioles have a much more limited range and are only found in southern Texas and parts of coastal Mexico, and these shy birds do not migrate. Even their songs are more muted and are generally slow, breathy whistles.
Spot-Breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)
The spot-breasted oriole looks very similar to the hooded oriole with their black mask and chin, but they have distinctive black spots on the sides of their orange breast and an orange wedge on the shoulder that the hooded oriole lacks. These birds have a very limited range and are found in southeastern Florida and Central America. Like many other orioles, their songs have a rich, whistling quality.
Streak-Backed Oriole (Icterus pustulatus)
Similar to the Altamira oriole in coloration and pattern, the most striking difference of the streak-backed oriole is the namesake black and orange streaking on their back. These birds have the most limited range of all the orioles seen in the United States and are only occasionally spotted in southern Arizona or southern California. Their typical range extends from Mexico into Central America as far south as the northern part of Panama. The streak-backed oriole's song is a soft whistle with a nasal quality.
While the different types of orioles may have somewhat different colors, plumage patterns, and different ranges, they all have very similar diets and feeding preferences. All orioles eat a wide variety of grubs, caterpillars, and insects, and they all enjoy nectar, berries, and fruits such as oranges and bananas.
At feeders, orioles sip nectar from dedicated oriole feeders and may even visit hummingbird feeders that have perches large enough for these songbirds to feel comfortable. They will gobble up grape jelly and suet and enjoy orange halves and mealworms.
The more widespread orioles, particularly Baltimore and Bullock's orioles, are easy to attract to feeders and will regularly visit bird-friendly yards with berry bushes or fruit trees for extra feeding. Other oriole species tend to be shier and more hesitant in the yard. Minimizing insecticide and offering foods for orioles in quiet corners away from busier feeding stations can help attract all types of orioles.
Orioles are amazing songbirds and welcome guests in many yards. By more easily recognizing orioles and learning about their ranges and preferred foods, any backyard birder can enjoy these colorful birds.
BirdLife International, Oriolidae Bird Family
BirdLife International, Icteridae Bird Family
Science Daily, Convergent Evolution
The Spruce, Feeding Orioles