The Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) is one of America’s most eye-catching songbirds. One of seven Oriole species in the US, these colorful birds delight birdwatchers yearly when they return to feed at backyard bird feeders and forage from wilderness to wooded suburbs. Have you ever wondered where these birds go in the winter and why they even leave?
Baltimore Orioles make two journeys each year, one to their breeding grounds in the US and another to overwinter in the south. Their journey has many perils. These birds, which weigh less than two ounces, fly thousands of miles and risk bad weather, predators, and collisions with infrastructure.
Baltimore Orioles are celebrated as the state bird of Maryland, although their breeding range encompasses most of the eastern half of the United States.
Males arrive a week or so before the females to claim their territory and waste no time in finding a partner and starting a family. The breeding season is short, and these migratory songbirds are among the first to leave on the long journey south.
This guide covers the migratory habits of the beautiful Baltimore Oriole. Read along to learn more about their journey and when they might arrive in your neighborhood.
A pair of male Baltimore Orioles fighting, during spring migration
Baltimore Orioles are seasonal migrants. That’s why these birds are common at some times of the year and completely absent at others. The entire population of this species is migratory, although some never leave the southern United States.
Continue reading to learn more about the timing of the Baltimore Orioles’ migration.
Baltimore Orioles migrate twice a year at the start of spring and the end of summer. Day length and hormonal changes within their bodies tell them when to prepare for migration, and favorable weather conditions may trigger their departure.
In the spring, Baltimore Orioles fly north from their overwintering grounds in South and Central America. They begin to leave Central America as early as February, and most will have arrived at their northern limits in Canada by the end of May.
Continue reading to track their northbound progress through the United States.
Baltimore Orioles spend about three months on the summer breeding grounds in the United States and Canada. Their return migration starts early, usually a few weeks before the start of fall.
Baltimore Orioles may leave their summer nesting grounds in Canada before the start of August, but they hang back a little longer to the south. In Texas, birdwatchers will see the peak of their southward migration in September.
Baltimore Oriole feeding on an orange
Migration has many benefits for Baltimore Orioles. Late spring and summer are wonderful seasons in the American east, especially for birds that need a steady supply of insects to feed their growing chicks. However, winters are better spent in the tropics, where fruit, insects, and warm weather are abundant throughout the year.
Baltimore Orioles may migrate as far as 2500 miles on each migration. Those that cross the Gulf of Mexico must complete an exhausting 500-mile journey without stopping to rest.
Baltimore Orioles that migrate across the Gulf of Mexico need to complete an exhausting 500 mile leg without any rest
The Majority of the Baltimore Oriole population can complete each leg of their migrations within a month. However, the actual time it takes depends largely on the weather. Headwinds and low-pressure systems make migrating difficult, so the birds may need to sit tight and wait for ideal conditions before completing their journey.
Baltimore Orioles, like so many other neotropical migrants, leave the United States to spend the winter in the tropics and subtropics of Mexico and Central and South America.
They are an adaptable species in both their breeding and non-breeding ranges. Habitats in their overwintering grounds include gardens, woodlands, plantations, and forests.
Many Baltimore Orioles migrate over land by flying through Mexico, although some brave birds cross the Gulf of Mexico. Their migration route falls within the Central and Mississippi flyways, passages used by over 300 bird species.
Female Baltimore Oriole taking off in the spring blossom
The duration of each Baltimore Oriole’s migration varies, depending on factors like weather conditions and their migration route. The breeding population generally takes about a month to reach their breeding grounds in the midwest and six weeks to reach their northernmost limits in central Canada.
Baltimore Orioles don’t complete their entire migration without stopping. However, they can travel long distances without a break when weather conditions allow.
Baltimore Orioles stop off along their migration for rest and feeding
Baltimore Orioles migrate either singly, in pairs, or in small flocks. Birdwatchers are more likely to spot these birds migrating together in the fall than in the spring, and larger groups may be more common in the south.
Baltimore Orioles are complete migrants, which means the entire population is migratory.
However, some birds attempt to overwinter each year. Birdwatchers in the east report seeing these birds at their feeders in the dead of winter. We don’t know which percentage of these birds survive, although a year-long supply of their favorite food probably sees them through.
Baltimore Orioles migrate from Canada, the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Upper Southeast of the United States, and smaller numbers breed in the upper Southwest. Some Orioles overwinter in Florida and Georgia, with an increasing number from South Carolina to Virginia.
Baltimore Orioles are completely migratory, with all populations migrating
Most Baltimore Orioles spend the winter in Central America, the Caribbean, and the north of South America, but some remain in the continental United States. These birds usually overwinter in the following countries:
Summer is the breeding season when Baltimore Orioles migrate as far as the north of Alberta, Canada, and reach their western limit in neighboring British Columbia. Their range in the Lower 48 covers the Northeast and much of the Midwest and Southeast.
Look out for Baltimore Orioles in the following states this summer:
Perched male Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Orioles appear to migrate both during the day and night. They often begin their flights in the evening and fly through the night and into the following morning. Sadly, these birds can become disorientated by lights and collide with towers and other tall structures.
Baltimore Orioles are known to migrate in pairs and small mixed flocks, although their numbers vary from two to over 100 individuals.
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