The Great Backyard Bird Count will be this weekend and South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources wants to know if people see Baltimore orioles. You may be more likely to see the baseball team’s namesake than 20 years ago.
“Back several decades ago, the Baltimore oriole was an unusual bird to see in South Carolina in the winter and we’re not quite sure why the numbers have increased through the years,” DNR wildlife technician Lex Glover said. “Instead of going to the tropics they’re starting to winter up and down the Atlantic coast, but primarily from Virginia down to the tropics of South and Central America.”
The bird count is a worldwide effort, but DNR uses data from birdwatchers to track Baltimore Orioles or any other unusual birds spotted in the state.
“As more and more participate in programs like this, the more we learn about unusual birds that may show up here during the winter… maybe start showing an increase in numbers,” Glover said.
Although some birds only stop in South Carolina during their migration, some stay for the winter. Glover said naturalists suspect the orioles are starting to take advantage of food sources in South Carolina.
“We think that a large part of their occurrences now in South Carolina in the winter is due to the popularity of backyard bird feeding,” he said. “They’re smart enough to know if there’s a bunch of birds feeding here, there must be food here and they’ll start investigating.”
He said weather plays a role sometimes, too. Weather fronts in fall and winter “can push unusual birds from out west to the east coast.”
Baltimore orioles go the name because their coloring resembles the coat of arms of Maryland’s colonial governor Lord Baltimore, namesake of the state’s largest city.
Glover said the bird count helps wildlife experts understand the status and distribution of bird species.
Additional information from the SCDNR:
Survey participants count and record the largest number of Baltimore Orioles they can see at one time, on one, two, three or all four days of the survey period. You can participate in the survey by either requesting an SCDNR survey form or if you are a Great Backyard Bird Count participant, you can e-mail a copy of your checklist submission to SCDNR. For more information, contact Lex Glover at GloverL@dnr.sc.gov.
Baltimore Orioles usually winter in South and Central America, and historically it was unusual to see one in South Carolina during the winter. However, during the last few decades, they have been wintering along the East Coast and Southeast in greater abundance. Last year’s Great Backyard Bird Count results had sightings ranging along the east coast from Florida to Maine and as far north as Nova Scotia, with the bulk of the birds wintering from Virginia, south to Florida, There were a scattering of reports from the Gulf States and across the country, as far west as California.
South Carolina Winter Baltimore Oriole Survey data combined with the Great Backyard Bird Count data had South Carolina with the highest number of reports (29 percent of the total number of reports) and the highest number of orioles tallied (40 percent of the total amount of orioles tallied). South Carolina had orioles as far inland as Greenville and along the coastal zone from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head Island.
Though SCDNR is not sure why these birds have begun overwintering in the state, they are responding well to the popularity of backyard bird feeding. Orioles by nature have a “sweet tooth” and will eat nectar from flowers and wild fruits. Their favorite bird-feeding food by far seems to be grape jelly. Orange halves can be used to attract the orioles into your yard, but grape jelly will encourage them to return. Other items they will eat are suet products (homemade, cakes, bark butter, logs, etc.), sugar water (they will drink from hummingbird or oriole nectar feeders), seed mixes (seem to prefer nut and fruit mixes), sliced grapes, mealworms (live or freeze-dried), sweet cornbread and pound cake.
During the winters from 2009-2015, SCDNR trapped and banded Baltimore Orioles that frequented feeders around the state. SCDNR trapped a total of 1,148 birds at 41 sites; banding 990 and recapturing 158, representing 142 individuals. But the most exciting find was when one of the orioles banded in Myrtle Beach on March 8, 2011, was recovered on Sept. 23, 2015, in British Columbia. This is at the extreme western edge of Baltimore Orioles’ known range.