June 2024
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Tropical Birds in Prescott: Orioles

Every spring brings an immense amount of change to our region. The grip of winter slowly gives way to the temperate climate we all enjoy so much. The landscape explodes into green, mixed with an array of colorful wildflowers. With that wave of life comes the colorful palette of birds making their way north to find a place to breed and carry on their respective species.

These birds come from as far south as Argentina, and many are quite tropical in appearance. They are tropical birds for half the year, and because of that they are often adorned with the sort of colorful plumage often associated with birds we may find in the most secluded depths of the Amazon, yet we can enjoy them in our own backyards.

Bullock's oriole — Wikimedia Commons

One particular family of birds like these is the beloved orioles. They are so loved and appreciated we named a whole baseball team after them! In the Prescott area, we enjoy three oriole species with some regularity: the Bullock’s, the Scott’s, and hooded orioles.

Orioles are closely related to blackbirds and meadowlarks. If you take all the bright colors of an oriole and turn them black, you’d have a hard time picking them out in a flock of just about any blackbird species. They’re all going to be medium-sized passerines with long, pointed beaks, nothing out of the ordinary, in short, a stereotypical ‘bird’ shape. Where they differ dramatically from blackbirds is in their behavior, diet and aforementioned color.

With the trio of orioles in our region we enjoy three very distinct birds with distinct traits. Most commonly we get the Bullock’s oriole. During the early days of the spring migration it’s not uncommon to see this species in just about any Arizona back yard. As they migrate through on their way to their preferred nesting habitat, they are on constant lookout for food.

If you have what they want, they may add a splash of eye-catching tangerine to your yard for the few days before they move on. Orioles eat fruit and insects, so what they want are big trees, orange slices, grape jelly, nectar feeders (they will gladly requisition a vacant hummingbird feeder) and a little good habitat around the yard to retreat into if they sense danger lurking.

In most yards they won’t stay long, because they are strict habitat specialists in Arizona. Bullock’s orioles require a lush, lower-elevation deciduous forest to breed and rear young. For their diet it needs to be temperate and produce reliable food. This makes our riparian corridors like Watson Woods a perfect match. The insect-like chatter of their call is ubiquitous along our local waterways in summer.

Hooded oriole by Magdalena Richter

Next on our list is the lemon-yellow-bodied and black-headed Scott’s oriole, another strict habitat specialist. In complete contrast to the meandering oases of the Bullock’s, Scott’s seek out rocky hillsides covered in agave and yucca. They are pollinator specialists, using their long beaks to get deep into the bountiful blossoms of our local succulents. Their vocalization is extremely similar to that of the Western meadowlark, and it’s easy to get confused when you think you hear that grassland species, very out of context on a craggy slope. This is a harder bird to find, but anyone living in the rolling pinyon-juniper hills to the north of Chino Valley have great opportunities to see them in the yard.

Last on our list is the papaya-orange hooded oriole. We don’t often see this species in Prescott, but it’s not impossible either. They are certainly more common in the Verde Valley, the Cordes Junction area and even as close as Mayer. In Arizona we tend to see them in Sonoran and Mohave Desert habitats, though they do bleed over into our central highlands.

In their more typical habitat they frequent the abundant ocotillo, agave, yucca and saguaro blossoms, and feast on the local insect population. Hooded orioles have a jet-black face with an orange crown that extends down the back of the neck and across most of the body. This creates the “hooded” appearance.

My friends Magda and Michael recently took a trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, and it proved an amazing spot to observe this desert-dweller. The Bullock’s oriole has the same black throat, but also a black line that runs horizontally through the eye, and black also extends from the back to the top of the head.

Three orioles, three specialists and three habitats to comb in search of these vibrant birds, in addition to so many more!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.