Bird-Watching Column: At Home With Hooded Orioles

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
November 11, 2003

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News BirdWatcher every fortnight or so.

The hooded oriole is probably the prettiest bird I have ever seen, and it may be the smartest.

It is covered with brilliant yellow feathers, and yet it has streaks of white on its black wings and it has a large patch of black on its chin and eye area. Its black beak is tapered to a sharp point, so the oriole can suck nectar from flowers such as the bottlebrush or sugar water from the oriole feeder that I put out for him.

For a number of years after I moved out to Los Angeles, I had a palm tree with a frond that hung out over the pool. Every year, the hooded oriole built its nest on the underside of this frond, so that it hung down just above you while you were swimming in the pool. It was fun to see this yellow ball flying to and from its nest from that vantage point.

Eventually, however, I had to have the palm tree removed, and for the last few years the oriole has only been a passing visitor through my yard, as its nest is in a palm tree down toward the canyon from my house.

You can judge the seasons by the arrival and departure of the oriole. He arrives in spring, usually around the beginning of April, and he leaves for his wintering grounds in Mexico around the end of August. The funny thing is, there's no warning for these events. Suddenly, one day in spring, there he is, and when the days start getting a little shorter at the end of the summer, he just disappears. Just like that, from one day to the next.

I can't prove it, but I presume that this is the same family of hooded orioles that visits our neighborhood each year. Generation after generation has been raised here, only to return and have families of their own. The female is an olive and yellow color, and the immature male looks like the female but has a patch of black on its chin and eye area. It's fun to watch the bright-yellow male lead his family around the neighborhood after breeding has been completed.

While it is almost impossible to get close to a female or immature male hooded oriole, the male will make himself available at your oriole feeder—but he's a prima donna. He lands about fifty feet away first, and starts his short, upwardly-rising whistles followed by a series of chuck, chuck, chucks.

When he lands in the lemon tree that houses my feeder, he chuck, chuck, chucks again, and when he senses the coast is clear, he hops onto the feeder and takes a few sips of sugar water, always looking around warily when he pulls his beak out of the hole.

He usually stays on the feeder for about five to ten seconds. That's it. Then he flies off for a good half-hour or so before he returns to the oriole feeder again. He must have a lot of choice stops around the neighborhood where he gets plant nectar and perhaps sugar water from another oriole feeder (I shudder at the thought!)

Anyway, one summer, I was trying to get a photograph of this hooded oriole, and I sat out in the hot L.A. sun for about three hours, during which time the hooded oriole made two (count them, two) passes at the feeder, for a total of about five seconds for each pass.

I was covered in sweat and perhaps distracted by my impatience to get the shot, and I missed him at each pass—the first time by not changing my shutter speed from 1/60 second to 1/125 second, and the second because I instinctively reached out to focus my 200-500mm lens and the oriole could sense the movement in his direction (even from 35 feet away) and he flew off immediately.

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