Johnson County gardeners’ tips on how to attract these iconic, colorful birds to your backyard this spring

Johnson County birds

It's migration season for Baltimore Orioles, and many gardeners in Johnson County have had success in attracting them to feed in their yards. Photo credit Dale Beckerman.

The rain held off early Saturday morning just long enough for the Baltimore Orioles to swing by for a quick breakfast.

The songbirds of black and orange plumage have a fairly simple appetite: grape jelly and orange slices.

And some local Johnson County gardeners have enjoyed attracting the colorful birds to their yards and keeping them well fed this spring.

At the Stilwell home of Linda Patterson, a master gardener with the K-State Extension Office in Johnson County, it’s quiet and picturesque, a respite for these shy songbirds.

Yet even in the heart of suburban Johnson County, many other amateur gardeners have had luck attracting orioles to their yards.

Pretty much any backyard can be turned into a haven for orioles as they pass through Johnson County this spring, say those who’ve tried.

Here are some tips and tricks from three local master gardeners on how to attract orioles to your yard:

What to look for (and where to look)

Know what to look for: a male Baltimore Oriole’s signature plumage of black and orange feathers, and a female’s yellow body with darker wings and back. Some young males may look like adult females until their darker plumage grows in. Photo credit Dale Beckerman.

First, you need to know what you’re looking for. Spot a small bird with black feathers on his back and head and a chest and underbelly of reddish-orange feathers.

There should be a few white feathers on the bird’s wings. That’s a male Baltimore Oriole.

A female Baltimore Oriole will have mostly yellow-colored feathers all over, except for her wings. Her wings are mostly dark with some white feathers intermingled.

Orchard Orioles may make an occasional appearance in your yard too. Patterson with the K-State Extension Office said they’re very shy and she doesn’t see them often.

Orioles are often spotted by hummingbird feeders because they like sugar water. They also like bright colors, so bird feeders that are painted bright or have bright objects in them (like oranges) could attract these birds.

Start now (in May)

If you want to attract orioles to your yard, start preparing now. May is the best time to get ready, say master gardeners. (Early May is most ideal, so it doesn’t hurt to start getting ready for next year.)

Scout birds are out at this time of year looking for food and homes as other orioles migrate north for the summer. Early May is the time to put out food so the scouts can find it and tell their friends.

“We see the scouts coming every few days and check it out, and then it’s almost like clockwork on Mother’s Day,” said Sandy Bonar, a master gardener in Prairie Village, who started attracting the songbirds years ago.

Keep it sweet

Baltimore Orioles apparently have a sweet tooth.

Some master gardeners say they have luck attracting the birds with oranges and grape jelly.

Oranges are bright and flashy in color, which helps attract orioles in the first place.

Once orioles establish your feeder as a pitstop, they may ignore the oranges and focus only on grape jelly. It really depends.

Be sure to slice the oranges at least in half so the orioles can more easily pick out the flesh.

“I would put out grape jelly and oranges both because they might see the oranges and come, and then discover the grape jelly,” Patterson said. “We just found them because they were attracted to the hummingbird feeder. We didn’t even know there were orioles around. But once we saw them, we said well let’s see what we can do, ‘cause they’re fun to watch.”

Pick your feeder

Buy a bird feeder specifically for orioles, or make your own.

Pick out a feeder that can easily dispense grape jelly. There are plenty of options for bird feeders. Some commercial grade feeders are designed specifically for orioles.

Bonar’s feeder is orange because the orioles like the bright colors. However, some feeders use heavy black wire that allow you to lay out the oranges, as well as containers to hold jelly.

Some gardeners have had luck keeping it more simple.

For instance, Patterson uses two pie tins, which are easy to refill and relocate. Patterson regularly fills aluminum trays with grape jelly and fixes them to the railing of her back deck.

Give them privacy

Placement of your oriole feeder is a strategy in and of itself.

Orioles are shy birds by nature, so try to place your feeder close to a tree. Patterson said her orioles seem to hide out in a nearby tree, watch the feeder until they deem it safe to come out and then fly down to eat.

On the other hand, your bird feeder needs visibility.

Dale Beckerman, a master gardener in Prairie Village, recommends giving your bird feeder plenty of space so that orioles have an easier time finding it.

Regardless of where you place your feeder, make sure you can keep an eye on it from several feet away or through the window in your home. Orioles are generally shy and may fly away if you get too close.

Keep your bird feeder well stocked

You might spot darker-looking orioles. These are Orchard Orioles and often migrate with Baltimore Orioles. Photo credit Dale Beckerman.

During the height of migration season in May, orioles like to eat a lot. With regular feeding (and a bit of luck and dedication), some could decide to stay in your yard all summer.

For Patterson, many orioles will come by, but a few seem to linger.

“We’ll get enough during the migration season that I usually have to go through a jar of jelly a day till they decide to leave,” Patterson said. “But we do have a few that stay, and we know that they’re building a nest because we sometimes find nesting material out by the feeders.”

After their babies hatch, they come up to the feeder with their parents, who sometimes feed them grape jelly from the feeders for a couple of days before the baby birds start to eat on their own.

Patterson said she fed orioles for about four or five years before any of the birds stayed all summer. Some, she says, will now stay until September.

Look out for other critters

Other birds and critters apparently need their sugar fix too, so be on the lookout for them.

“I have a beautiful, gorgeous garden, and we feed the birds year round,” Bonar said. “It’s just a haven for wildlife, as long as it’s not rabbits. It’s an attractive place for them to come. Not that I think you have to have that, but I just think it’s an environment that is really welcome to them.”

Patterson regularly sees summer tanagers (red birds that look like cardinals), trusty yellow-bellied woodpeckers and a bully bluejay who all like to eat grape jelly. The woodpeckers also seem to favor the oranges.

Patterson takes her aluminum trays indoors at night to avoid the attention of “resourceful” raccoons.