Commotion at a hummingbird feeder drew my eye. A Bullock’s Oriole—all 9” of him—was trying to maneuver around the various ports to get a drink. No luck. The fellow reminded me of a 6th grader trying to ride a tricycle—nothing fit and nothing worked. Later that day, a Hooded Oriole (a bit smaller at 8”) landed on the same feeder, drinking from a port like a pro. What a difference an inch makes.
The typical Southern California neighborhood suits few birds better than it does Hooded Orioles. These days, they occur along palm-lined streets—especially those with fan-leafed palms (either invasive Mexican or native California)—and in eucalyptus stands in much higher numbers than they do in their historical habitats of desert palm oases and riparian sycamores and cottonwoods. Two areas of San Diego County host the majority of our Hooded Orioles: the coastal lowland and lower foothills and the canyons leading to the Anza–Borrego Desert.
An adult male Hooded Oriole’s yellow-orange body and hood, black face, and bib make him pretty much unmistakable. Featuring olive green and yellow, the female shows considerably less flash. Both sexes display two strong white wing bars. Both sexes sing, but their song is often quiet, easily overlooked; but their distinctive chatter announces their presence to a tuned-in listener.
Hooded Orioles feed on larval and adult insects (e.g., caterpillars, grasshoppers, ants) as well as fruit and nectar. They forage nimbly, sometimes even clinging to leaves upside down. They also eat from specially designed oriole feeders or appropriately sized hummingbirds feeders. For example, most of my hummingbird feeders have small round ports, which these orioles can’t use. But one style has slightly oval-shaped ports and the Hoodeds line up for it.
The brilliantly colored adult males arrive from their wintering grounds in Mexico a few days before the females. Building a nest on her own, the female weaves a pouch of grasses or fibers from yuccas or palms, which she sometimes attaches to branches on the sides. Or she may in effect sew it to the underside of a leaf by poking holes in the leaf with her beak and pushing fibers through. The female alone incubates a clutch of three or four eggs for roughly two weeks. Both parents bring food to nestlings, which fledge after approximately two weeks. Fledglings generally remain near the nest for several days, begging insistently from the adults, after which the adults often start a second brood.
The Hooded Oriole’s scientific name is Icterus cucullatus. The genus name for all orioles, Icterus, arises from the Greek ikteros (“jaundice”) for the yellowish breast seen in many (though not all) orioles. The Hooded’s species name, cucullatus (“monk’s cowl”), and the common name (“hooded”) refer to the male’s yellow-orange hood: The black face and throat reminded taxonomists of a dark face surrounded by a monk’s hood. The word “oriole” derives from the Latin oriolus and aureolus (“golden”).
In California Hooded Orioles practically cohabit with humans during breeding season, having expanded their range considerably as humans settled and urbanized new areas. As a result, one doesn’t immediately think of the species as facing threats. Yet Hooded Orioles likely have been affected by the spread of American Crows, which commonly depredate Hooded Oriole nests. The brood-parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird also uses Hoodeds’ nests for her eggs; her young hatch sooner, develop more quickly, and outcompete the orioles’ young. Also, suspending a nest from the lower fronds of an urban palm leaves the nest vulnerable to tree trimming during the nesting season. (Please don’t trim any trees or bushes during breeding season! You just can’t know who might be trying to raise a family there.) Despite these challenges, San Diego County’s local population appears to be thriving, eagerly colonizing new habitat as soon as it becomes available.
Hooded Orioles rarely appear in San Diego County until the first half of March. By early April, though, they become common. These gorgeous acrobats remain here until the males begin to leave for Mexico in August, with the females and this year’s youngsters mostly gone by mid-September. So keep your eyes open for flashes of bright yellow and black swooping through your neighborhood and tune your ears for their chatter emanating from the tops of palms or eucalyptus. Hoodeds are in the hood!