The keys to attracting orioles to your garden

attracting orioles

The breathtaking beauty of orioles inspires many of us to turn our backyards into oriole docking stations.

Feeders are the simplest and most effective decoy for migrating orioles. Birds occasionally consume sunflower seeds and suet, but they prefer sweeter foods. Oranges attract and give orioles a healthy food source. Some bird feeders are designed to serve orange halves, but simply placing the orange halves, fruit side up, on a deck railing or platform feeder works just as well.

Some sugar water feeders have large perches to accommodate both hummingbirds and orioles. Never use food coloring – it’s unhealthy and absolutely unnecessary. Make sugar water about the same concentration as natural nectars. Most authorities say to use a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water – the average concentration of nectar. During cold, wet periods, one-third cup of sugar per cup of water is still within natural limits and provides extra calories for shivering birds.

You do not need to boil the water unless you are preparing large quantities to refrigerate. Boiled or not, sugar water begins to ferment as soon as it is prepared, and the hotter it is, the faster the fermentation. Change the sugar water, boiled or not, as soon as it becomes cloudy, and every two days, cloudy or not, in hot weather.

Orioles love jelly, but their diet is controversial. (See my column on the jelly controversy from the September/October 2017 issue here.) No studies confirm that jelly is healthy or unhealthy for birds, but what tastes good for birds or humans is not. not always nutritious. Small birds can get bogged down in jelly, so only offer it in containers too small for small birds to step on or fall into. I use jar lids and also pour jelly into freshly drained orange halves; when the frost is gone, they are composted.

Some jellies contain artificial sweeteners, depriving birds of both carbohydrates and calories, and they may be unsafe. I use homemade or commercial jelly sweetened with sugar; no studies have confirmed the benefits or harms of high fructose corn syrup, but I think prevention is better than cure.

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Most backyards that attract orioles during migration cannot retain them during the breeding season. Orioles typically nest near ponds, rivers, and other natural water sources, in tall shade trees with slender outer twigs, sturdy enough to support their purse-like nests yet too narrow to welcome marauding squirrels, jays and crows.

The ideal oriole habitat also provides a wealth of natural insect food and a selection of local native trees and shrubs that provide fruit from spring through fall. Some ornamental fruit trees bear poisonous fruit; choose local native varieties of blackberries, serviceberries and flowering dogwoods. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several good suggestions here.

Even if your backyard doesn’t have suitable nesting habitat, orioles start migrating as soon as the young fly well. They appear every year in my own yard when the fruits of our cherry trees ripen. By this time the males have stopped singing and the families and individuals tend to be quiet and inconspicuous in the foliage, so I scan the branches carefully. From spring to fall, orioles are worth it.

Laura Erickson on the pros and cons of feeding birds jelly

This article first appeared in the “Attracting Birds” section of the May/June 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine.