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Altamira Oriole

Widespread in Central America, the Altamira Oriole is known for its bright plumage and love for subtropical climate.

The Altamira Oriole’s only presence in the U.S. is in southernmost Texas. Formerly known as the Lichtenstein’s Oriole, the subspecies present in the U.S. eventually gave its moniker to the species as a whole. Rare instances of hybridization between Altamira and Audubon’s Orioles have been noted.

Altamira Oriole territories are often not contiguous, so aggressive territorial defense is rarely needed. Altamira Oriole’s will chase cowbirds away, and sometimes nest near other species which are aggressive towards cowbirds such as kiskadees and kingbirds, perhaps to help reduce the chances of nest parasitism by cowbirds.

 

BREEDING MALE

The Altamira Oriole has a brilliant yellow-orange head and belly, a black throat, and dark wings and tail.

Altamira Oriole

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Female

Like male but not as bright.

Seasonal change in appearance

None.

Juvenile

Juveniles lack the black throat, and are not as brightly colored. Immatures have greenish backs.

Habitat

Tropical woodlands.

Diet

Insects and fruit.

Read more: The diets of orioles

Behavior

Altamira Orioles forage in trees.

Altamira Oriole

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Range

Found only in south Texas in the U.S., but are more common in Mexico and Central America.

Fun Facts

With its nests usually placed on high branches, few details are known about the Altamira Oriole’s nest life.

Altamira Oriole’s seldom nest near each other, so they rarely have aggressive territorial interactions.

Vocalizations

The song consists of clear whistles.

Attracting

Altamira Orioles will come to sugar water feeders.

Similar Species

Male Bullock’s Orioles have more white in the wings and a black cap. Spot-breasted Orioles have spotted breasts.

See more: Birds that look like orioles

Nesting

The Altamira Oriole’s nest is a hanging pouch made of mosses and other plant fibers supported by a tree branch.

Number: 4-6.
Color: Pale bluish-white with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at about 14 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) at and unknown age, but associate with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the Altamira Oriole

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Altamira Oriole – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

Alta Mira Lichtenstein’s Oriole
now Altamira Oriole
ICTERUS GULARIS TAMAULIPENSIS Ridgway

HABITS

This brilliantly colored and well-marked oriole was added to our fauna by Thomas D. Burleigh (1939), who collected a female near Brownsville, Tex., where it was probably only a winter wanderer, as its known range is from Veracruz, Pueblo, and San Luis Potosi to Tamaulipas in eastern Mexico. Burleigh says of its capture: “The day it was collected, January 7, 1938, it was found feeding with a flock of Green Jays (Xantkoura luxuosa glauceseens) in rather thick woods a few miles north of Brownsville; it was restless and wary, and was approached only with difficulty.”

Two other races of the species are found in southwestern Mexico and in Yucatan, respectively. In naming it Ridgway (1902) describes it as “similar to I. g. gularis, but decidedly smaller and the coloration more intense, the orange-yellow more decidedly orange (usually rich cadmium orange); black at anterior extremity of malar region, broader; bill shorter and deeper through base.”

Sutton and Pettingill (1943), to whom we are indebted for most of our knowledge of its habits, describe it as: A conspicuous, orange, black and white bird of eastern Mexico’s coastal plain.

* * * It is larger than the other common nesting orioles of this region, the Hooded (Icterus cucullat us) and the Black-headed (Icterus graduacauda), being fully 9 inches long. Its song is loud and repetitious. It is especially notable for two reasons: (1) The male and female are so much alike in size as well as color as to be virtually indistinguishable in the field, a resemblance that certainly is not characteristic of the Icteridae in general. (2) The nest is customarily placed in such an exposed situation as to suggest that the instinct for hiding it has been lost, or perhaps has been supplanted by an instinct for advertising it. This is hardly true of most orioles of the genus Icerus .

Evidently, the Alta Mira oriole is not at all secretive in its habitat nor in the selection of a nesting site, in spite of its conspicuous coloring. In southern Veracruz, according to Wetmore (1943) “these birds were found through the treetops in heavy forest, in the lines of trees bordering fields and streams, and in scattered groves through the pastures. They were the most common of the orioles and were often kept as cage birds.”

Bendire (1895) wrote at some length on the frequent occurrence of orioles of this species in Louisiana, based on information received from E. A. Mcllhenny; but as these may have been escaped cagebirds, the species has never been accepted as occurring naturally in that State, which is so far from its known range. It does not seem to have been reported there in recent years .

Nesting: The Alta Mira oriole is a wonderful nest builder. Sutton and Pettingill (1943) found five occupied nests near Gomez Farms, Tamaulipas, all of which were “placed in much exposed situations. Nests of Icterus gularis reported from San Luis Potosi and El Salvador were placed in similarly exposed situations.” The first nest was within 75 yards of the house in which they lived, and was watched daily from the beginning of the construction to the laying of the first egg. This nest was in “a living, though leafless, 50-foothigh ear tree (Enterolobium cyclocarpum),” about 35 feet from the ground, not far from the end of a slender branch and attached to a two-tined fork.

Building the nest required at least 18 days (April 7: 24) and possibly as many as 26 days (April 7: May 2). From April 7 to 14 the work progressed irregularly; from April 14 to 17 much material was added; from April 17 to 22 the structure took on its final shape; but from that date on, work was desultory. We believe the first egg was laid on May 2.* * *

The nest’s greatest outside length, from the fork to the bottom, was 25 inches. The greatest outside diameter (not far from the bottom) was 6½ inches. It was symmetrical and quite smooth, the material being well tucked in. It was made almost entirely of air-plant rootlets, most of them several inches long, and fiber stripped from palmetto leaves. The lining, which covered the bottom only, was of palmetto fiber and horsehair. Nowhere about the nest was there a feather, bit of wool or cotton or kapok fluff, or other soft material.

About 250 strands of rootlet or palmetto fiber passed over each eight-inch length of supporting twig. The remaining third of the nest-rim consisted of four or five tough rootlet “cables” hung from one tine to the other. About these, slenderer rootlets were twisted tightly, giving the edge a somewhat ropelike appearance. This third of the rim was notably thin and strong.* * *

The rootlets of the nest wall ran downward and more or less parallel to each other, as if they had purposely been allowed to dangle while the bird wove other strands about them. Some of these meridional rootlets extended the entire length of the nest, but most of the material was obviously woven in and out crosswise into a sort of rough fabric. No rootlet or fiber encircled the outside of the nest.

The wall was thickest at the bottom. Here the material was tightly interwoven and matted. The lining was not attached either to the bottom or to the sides. It could be lifted en masse without difficulty, evidently having been laid with some care and pressed into final position by the bird’s body.

At this, and at all the other nests observed, only one brightly colored bird was ever seen at the nest or even bringing material; as both sexes are brightly colored and practically indistinguishable in the field, this was probably the female. Brief notes on their other nests follow:

“Sutton discovered a partly built Alta Mira Oriole nest on April 6. It was almost directly above one of the paths leading from the Rio Sabinas to the main trail to Gomez Farias and was about 30 feet from the ground on a dead branch in a living tree at the edge of a good-sized clearing. Here one brightly colored bird was noted repeatedly, never two.”

Another nest “overhung the Rio Sabinas not far from the Rancho. We found it on April 3, but we do not know how many birds worked on it. It was in a cypress and must have been fully 50 feet above the water. It was in plain sight for many rods both up and down stream and was not far (possibly 25 feet) from an occupied nest of the Rosethroated Becard (Platypsari.s aglaiae) and one of the Giraud, or Social Flycatcher (Myjozetetes similis).”

The fourth nest “was far out on one of the uppermost branches of a large (50 feet high), completely dead tree that stood quite by itself in a well cleared field just north of the headquarters house”; and the fifth “hung from a leafless, perhaps dead branch, almost over the main highway, about 30 feet from the ground.”

Sutton and Burleigh (1940) found a nest in San Luis Potosi that swung from a single telephone wire that ran above a wooded gully and was 80 or more feet from the ground. The poles were many rods off, on ridges at either side of the gully. Dickey and van Rossem (1938) say that, in El Salvador, “the usual sites are the tips of branches at varying heights from the ground, but sometimes the nests are hung from telephone wires, particularly if there happen to be a few tufts of epiphitic growth to provide a starting point.”

It appears from the above accounts that the Alta Mira oriole purposely selects the most conspicuous nesting site that it can find, on which Sutton and Pettingill (1943) comment:

Certain it is that a conspicuous nest site is advantageous to the owner insofar as it forces enemy species to use exposed avenues of approach. How easy it is, when we focus attention on any one bird to forget that this bird’s enemies all have enemies themselves! Any predatory creature that makes its way to an Alta Mira Oriole’s nest, either by day or by night, is certain to expose itself to its own enemy species whether these happen to be enemy species of the oriole or not.

The oriole’s nest must meet certain specifications if it is to be boldly advertised, of course. It must provide proper conditions of temperature and air for the eggs and young birds in spite of hanging, hour after hour, exposed to the sun. It must be tough enough, long enough, far enough out on the branch, and far enough above the ground to make a coati-mundi (Nesue) “think twice” before attempting a raid. It must be too deep for Brown Jays to rob easily, too tough to tear apart, too much like a trap to appeal to the female Red-eyed Cowbird (Tengetdus aeneus). The fact that Icterus guleris is common proves it to be a successful species. We may believe, therefore, that its own peculiar method of nest-advertising is advantageous rather than otherwise.

Eggs: Bendire (1895) describes an egg from Guatemala “as a pale gray, blotched and streaked with very dark brown; it measures 1 by 0.70 inch.” Dickey and van Rossem (1938) say: “The eggs are sunilar to those of aclateri and pectoralis, that is, they are elongate ovate, with the bluish white ground color lined, scrawled, and irregularly spotted with black. A set of three eggs collected at Lake Guija May 23, 1927, measure respectively: 29.8 x 19.2; 29.6 x 18.5; and 29.1 x 19.3. Three and four eggs are the usual numbers laid.”

Alexander F. Skutch mentions in his notes an egg of this species, taken in Guatemala, that “was of an extremely elongate form, in color white irregularly scrawled with lines of black and pale lilac, and measured 27.4 by 17.5 millimeters.” It was on the point of hatching and was probably somewhat faded.

Young: In his notes on another race of this species, Icterus gularis xerophilus, Skutch writes: “On July 19, I watched a nest which contained two young about ready to leave it. The repeated passage of the adults while feeding their nestlings had torn and enlarged the entrance until the entire side was open to within a few inches of the bottom, a not infrequent occurrence with nests of this type. When one of the parents clung to the outside to deliver an insect, two heads stretched forth, open-billed, to receive it. A third nestling had already departed, and awaited his share of the good things in the next tree. The whole time that I was within hearing, both parents, who united in feeding their offspring, uttered a continuous succession of single notes of three different kinds, and each as full of sunshine as their golden plumage. Whether they searched among the foliage for larvae and insects, or returned with food in their bills to the nest, or clung to its side in the interval between feeding their offspring and carrying away the droppings, their joy in their occupation constantly expressed itself in these happy monosyllables. Even when they interrupted their parental ministrations to scold at my intrusion, their churning protests were punctuated with these notes of gladness, which they never seemed able, or willing, to suppress. Never have I heard other birds, save vireos, sing so continuously.”

He says that orioles of this race in Guatemala raise two broods in a season, and that the young of the first brood are apparently fed by the male while the female is building the second nest.

Plumages: Ridgway (1902) describes the juvenal, or first, plumage of typical I. gularis as: “Head, neck, and under parts (including throat, etc.) yellow, the color duller on pileum and hindneck; back and scapulars olive; rump and upper tail-coverts dull yellow (gallstone or dull saffron), like pieum and hindneck; wings and tail as in the immature plumage, described above [see below], but greater coverts broadly tipped (on outer webs) with dull yellowish white, secondaries, broadly edged with white, primaries more broadly edged with pale gray (passing into white terminally) and with a white patch at the base.”

Apparently, a postjuvenal molt renews all the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings nor the tail. Ridgway describes this first winter plumage as follows: “Head, neck and under parts as in adults, but the latter rather paler, or less orange, yellow; back and scapulars yellowish olive; lesser wing-coverts dusky, broadly tipped or margined with saffron yellowish; middle coverts dusky at base, broadly tipped with white or yellow; rest of wings dark grayish brown with paler edgings, these white, or nearly so, on greater coverts; tail yellowish olive.”

Dickey and van Rossem (1938) say of this plumage and subsequent changes:

At this age the throat patches of the females are very restricted and mixed with yellow. Those of the males are larger and very much blacker, but otherwise the sexes are very similar. Some young birds have a first prenuptial molt which affects chiefly the foreparts and back, but in four out of six cases the postjuvenal plumage is worn with no discernible change for a full year or until the first postnuptial (second fall) molt. This first postnuptial has produced in the cases of three females a livery like that of the adults except that the back is more or less mixed with yellowish green. Certainly in these cases, at least, maturity was not reached at that time, and as there is apparently no spring molt (except in a few first-year birds) the fully adult plumage could not have been acquired by these individuals until the third fall (second postnuptial) molt.

There is a large series of the various races of this species in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, in Cambridge, showing all the plumages substantially as described above. The postiuvenal molt apparently begins in August and may not always be completed before the middle of September or later. I have seen one in full juvenal plumage as late as September 12. The series contains numerous specimens in first winter plumage from December to May .

The first postnuptial molt is shown in specimens taken in August and September; in one taken September 24, this molt is nearly completed, with yellowish green edgings on the feathers of the back. The postnuptial molt of adults occurs at about the same time, the body plumage being molted first and the wings and tail last.

Food: Of the stomachs of this species examined by Dickey and van Rossem (1938) in El Salvador, one contained small ants, one insects, one insects and berry seeds, and one berry seeds and pulp.

Referring to one of the birds shot by Melihenny in Louisiana, Bendire (1895) says: “On dissecting the specimen he found a number of small green caterpillars and several spiders, but their principal food seemed to consist of the small purple figs, which were just ripe. While in search of food they move about exactly as the Baltimore Oriole does, swinging from slender twigs head downward, looking under limbs for insects.”

Voice: Wetmore (1943) says that the “song is a quick repetition of two or three notes without the clear tone of that of the Baltimore oriole or the tropical, though the alarm calls are like those of the northern orioles.” Molllienny (Bendire, 1895) called it “a soft, flute-like note.”

Alexander F. Skutch says in his notes on the Guatemala race: “The song of this oriole consists of round, mellow whistles, uttered deliberately in a clear, far-carrying voice. In the evening, especially, it delivers single tinlding whistles spaced at rather wide intervals: crystal beads of melody strung along a thread of silence. It has a churring call, somewhat like that of its neighbor, the hooded cactus wren (Fleleodytes eapistratus), and a rather nasal note which may serve either as a call or a signal of alarm.”

Field marks: The Alta Mira oriole is a brilliantly colored and conspicuously marked bird. The sexes are almost indistinguishable m the field. The throat, interseapular region, and tail are clear black; the lesser and median wing coverts are yellow; the greater coverts are tipped with white, forming a wing bar; and the rest of the wings are black with varying amounts of white edgings. The head, neck, rump, and entire under parts (except the black throat) are rich yellow or orange-yellow. In the female, the black of the throat is somewhat more restricted and the blacks and yellows are duller than in the male. For other details, see the description of the plumages above.

DISTRIBUTION
Range: The Alta Mira Lichtenstein’s oriole is resident from central Tamaulipas (Victoria) south through eastern Mexico to Veracruz, Tabasco, Mexico, and Campeche.

Casual records: Gasual in southern Texas (Brownsville); nested near Santa Maria, Tex., 1951.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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