A colorful breeder in arid, southwestern habitats, the Scott’s Oriole utilizes a number of plants for nesting, including cactus. Males arrive and establish nesting territories shortly before females arrive to pair up and build a nest. Scott’s Oriole nests are very rarely reused, so a double-brooded female builds two nests in a breeding season.
Nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird is rare, but in recent years the Bronzed Cowbird has expanded its range north into the U.S. and is now having a substantial impact on Scott’s Orioles in some areas.
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Description of the Scott’s Oriole
The Scott’s Oriole is sexually dimorphic, though both sexes have the somewhat long, bluish-black bill typical of orioles, and both have yellow underparts with some black on the breast.
Males have a completely black head, upperparts, and breast, with a yellow belly and two white wing bars in addition to a yellow wing patch.
Females are yellowish on the underparts, with a dull or patchy black breast, a grayish-brown head, mottled black upperparts, and two white wing bars.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles resemble females but are duller. First spring birds are duller than adults.
Scott’s Orioles inhabit arid woodlands, desert scrub, and yucca grasslands.
Scott’s Orioles eat insects, berries, and nectar.
Scott’s Orioles forage within trees and shrubs, sometimes visiting flowers for nectar.
Scott’s Orioles breed in parts of the western and southwestern U.S. They winter in Mexico. The population appears to be stable.
Scott’s Orioles defend nesting territories, but regularly travel outside of the territory to forage.
Little in the way of basic ecological research has been done with Scott’s Orioles, and there is much that is not known about them.
The song consists of a series of low whistles that resembles the song of the Western Meadowlark. A harsh “chert” call is given as well.
- The Audubon’s Oriole is the only other yellow oriole in North Americas, and it has yellow upperparts and only a very limited U.S. range in south Texas.
The Scott’s Oriole’s nest is a hanging pouch of yucca fibers and grass and is lined with finer materials. It is often placed in a yucca, palm, or oak.
Number: Usually lay 2-4 eggs.
Color: Bluish-white with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-14 days, and fledge at about 14 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Scott’s 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 Scott’s Oriole – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ICTERUS PARISORUM Bonaparte
The adult male Scott’s oriole is a handsome bird in its striking color pattern of clear black and deep lemon yellow, but we miss the rich orange colors of some of the other beautiful orioles. In the dull colored semidesert areas in which it largely spends the summer, however, it is one of the most attractive birds that we meet on the dry yucca plains; and not the least of its attractions is its rich melodius song, which greets us almost constantly during the nesting season.
It breeds over a wide range, from the interior of southern California, central-western Nevada, southwestern Utah, central-eastern New Mexico, and central-western Texas southward to the tip of Baja California and to Michoac~n, Hidalgo, and Veracruz, in Mexico.
Scott’s oriole has been called the mountain oriole, and again it has been referred to as a desert bird; as a matter of fact it is not strictly either, for it occupies a more or less intermediate zone, or zones, such as the pinyon-juniper belt in the foothills, the desert slopes of the mountains, or the more elevated, semiarid plains between the mountain ranges, where the yuccas are widely scattered; but it seems to avoid the real desert, where the chollas and other cacti grow profusely. Ralph Hoffman (1927) says: “The bird often ranges among the junipers and pinyon pines that mingle with the tree yucca in the stony canyons along the edge of the desert, and in the Washington palms along the western edge of the Colorado Desert.”
W. E. D. Scott (1885) describes an interesting canyon resort of Scott’s oriole as follows:
There is a cafion that begins high up in the Santa Catalinas, and, dividing the hills and table lands on either side of it by its deep furrow, it extends for two miles or more, where it joins the valley of the San Pedro River. It is the upper and more elevated part of this cahon with which we have to do, at an altitude varying from four thousand to five thousand feet. The hills on either side are high, the cahon generally quite narrow. Live oaks are the trees of the hills and hillsides, and reach in places to the bed of the cafion. Here in parts are groves of cotton. woods and sycamores, and some cedars, and, with the exception of the very bed of the cafion, where for a part of the year is a brook, the grass covers the surface of the ground. The brook begins to dry up in its exposed parts early in May, but all summer long there is running water for at least a mile in the cottonwood grove, and in a number of places, even during the driest part of the year, the water rises to the surface, making “tanks,” as they are called. Along this running water and about the “tanks,” bird life is very abundant, and here, surely no desert, is the summer home of many Scott’s Orioles. There is very little cactus, and none of the “chollas” that are so very characteristic of the deserts of the neighboring region .
We found Scott’s orioles breeding most commonly on the semiarid valley plains between Bisbee and Tombstone, Cochise County, Ariz. These flat or rolling plains of hard, gravelly soil were bare of vegetation except for the low, scraggly, onmipresent creosote bushes so characteristic of much of the region between the mountains and the deserts. The chief attractions in this desolate region for the orioles were the widely scattered specimens of what we called the soapweed yuccas, the picturesque plants in which they were nesting.
Spring: Scott’s oriole is only a summer resident north of the Mexican border, where it arrives during the first half of April and sometimes before the end of March; the brilliant plumage of the males and their rich song make its arrival most conspicuous.
Laurence M. Eluey (1926) makes the following observation on the migration in northwestern Baja California:
Many were observed on migration five miles northeast of San Quintin, February 25, 1925, although the birds were extremely shy as usual. The presence of this Oriole in numbers so near the Pacific coast offers a problem in migration routing; for the species is of extremely accidental occurrence along the coast further north in the vicinity of San Diego, whereas inland, on the desert slope of the mountains east of San Diego, it passes regularly. Further observation of these birds will probably determine that they range up the peninsula, equally distributed from coast to coast, as far as the southern extremity of the Sierra San Pedro Martir, and that here they swing toward the Pacific, then northeastward again to the eastern slope of the mountains in southern California. A semi-arid highway, such as the Scott’s Orioles prefers, is thus provided.
Harry S. Swarth (1904) says of its arrival in the Huachuca Mountains:
The earliest date at which I have seen any was March 31,1903, when a male was secured; no more were seen until April 5, after which date they were abundant. Until nearly the end of April small flocks of from six to a dozen birds could be found along the canyons, usually below 5,000 feet, feeding in the tops of the trees, where, in spite of the brilliant plumage and loud, ringing whistle of the male birds they were anything but conspicuous.” * * * The first to arrive were the old, bright plumaged males, then a week or so later some females began to come in, and finally toward the end of April, what few flocks were seen were composed of females, and males presumably of the previous year, in every stage of plumage, most of them indistinguishable from the more highly colored females .
Nesting: Throughout its wide breeding range Scott’s oriole builds its nest in a variety of situations, depending on the environment. William Brewster (1902) records a nest, found by Frazar in the Cape region of Baja California, that was placed “among the densest foliage of a fig-tree at a height of about 5 feet, and rested on a few small twigs, but seemed to be fastened only to some twigs above, from which it was suspended.” Farther north, it is said by Walter E. Bryant (1890), on the authority of A. W. Anthony, “to prefer the low hills near the coast south of San Quintin, where it nests in the thorny branches of the candlewood (Fouquiera columriaris).”
Scott (1885) found five nests of this oriole in the locality described above, in Pinal County, Ariz. All the nests were within 10 minutes’ walk of the house in which he lived, and all but one of them were in yuccas (Yucca baccata), within 10 feet of a road and about 4 feet from the ground. He gives detailed descriptions of each of them, but, as they were all much alike, the following description will suffice:
Nest of May 24. Built in a yucca, 4 feet from the ground. Sewed to the edges of five dead leaves which, hanging down parallel to trunk of the plant, entirely concealed the nest. Semi-pensile. Composed externally of fibers of the yucca and fine grasses. Lined with soft grasses and threads of cotton-waste throughout. The walls are very thin, at bottom not more than half an inch, and on the sides from one-eighth to a quarter of an inch thick. The whole nest was rather closely woven and very strong. Inside depth, 33 inches. Inside diameter 4 inches. The whole cup-shaped. * * * ~ have called this nest semi-pensile, as the edges of the yucca leaves are not simply attached to the rim or top edge of the nest, but are “sewed” to the sides of the structure: one blade for 8 inches, three for 4 inches, and the other two for more than 2~4 The nest is sewed to the blades or leaves about 7 inches from where they join the trunk of the plant, and the blades are about 22 inches long .
He describes another nest that was not so pensile, as it rested on some slanting leaves. “Inside it is lined to within half an inch of the rim with small pieces of cotton batting, some cotton twine, and a little very soft grass. * * * The walls on the sides are an inch, and at the bottom an inch and a half thick.”
His fifth nest was built “in a sycamore tree, about 18 feet from the ground. Pensile, being attached to the ends of the twigs. It is composed externally entirely of the fibers of the dead yucca leaves, and there are hanging to and built into the walls four rather small dead leaves of this plant, that are partly frayed, so that the fiber is used in weaving them into the structure. The interior is lined with soft fine grasses, and only two or three shreds of cotton-waste appear here and there in the lining.~~ Frank Stephens wrote to Bendire (1895): “In Arizona I have seen its nest in the yucca, sycamore, oak, and pine trees; one nest found in an oak was not even semipensile, being supported at the sides and below by the upright branches between which it was placed.”
Bendire saw some nests in the tall tree yuccas, or Joshua trees. One “was placed fully 10 feet from the ground, and the only way I could reach it was to stand on my horse, which I did, and secured the eggs, three in number, in which incubation had commenced. The nest was so securely fastened to the surrounding bayonet-shaped leaves that I could not pull it away, and only succeeded in cutting my hand severely in trying to do so. The nest was composed of yucca fibers, sacaton, and gramma grass, and lined with a little horsehair.”
Another nest, taken by A. K. Fisher, in “Coso Valley, California, on May 11, 1891, was situated on the under side of a horizontal limb of a giant yucca (Yucca arborescens), about 6 feet from the ground. * * * Externally the nest measures 3~4 inches in depth by 5 inches in its longest diameter and 4 inches at the narrowest point. The inner cup is oval in shape, 2~ inches deep and 3~ by 3 inches wide.” He mentions junipers as being used to a considerable extent, and says that, in Baja California, Xantus reports it breeding “in bunches of moss and in hop and other vines suspended from cacti. He mentions finding one nest in a bunch of weeds growing out of a crevice in a perpendicular rock.”
On June 1,1922, we found four nests of Scott’s oriole in the Valley between Bisbee and Tombstone, as described above, each nest containing four fresh eggs. The nests were all in soapweed yuccas (Yucca baccata?) at heights ranging from 5 to 7 feet above ground. The yuccas were widely scattered over the open plain, which was sparsely covered with small creosote bushes. These picturesque plants (plate 16) support a dense growth of long, stiff, sharp-pointed leaves at the top of the sturdy trunk, but little higher than a man’s head, and a tall flowering stalk that rises to a height of 12 or 15 feet, above the trunk. The dead, and some of the green, leaves hang down below the main cluster of living daggers, close to and parallel with the trunk or at an angle of about 450ï It is in these pendent leaves that the orioles conceal their nests, where they are protected against predators and shielded from sun or rain. The locations and the compositions of the nests were so much like those described above by Mr. Scott that it does not seem necessary to describe them further here, except that our nests were lined with fine grasses and plant down, with no cotton nor cotton-waste.
In one nest we found an egg of the bronzed cowbird .
Eggs: Bendire (1895) describes the eggs as follows:
From two to four eggs are laid (usually three), and probably two broods are raised in the more southern parts of their range in a season. They are ovate and elongate ovate in shape. The shell is thin, rather close grained and without luster .
The ground color is pale blue, which fades considerably in the course of time, and this is blotched, streaked, and spotted, principally about the larger end of the egg, with different shades of black, mouse, and pearl gray in some specimens, and and with fine claret brown, russet, ferruginous, and lavender dots and specks in others.
The average measurement of 25 specimens in the United States National Museum collection is 23.86 by 16.98 millimetres, or about 0.94 by 0.67 inch. The largest egg in this series measures 26.67 by 17.27 millimetres, or 1.05 by 0.68 inches; the smallest, 23.11 by 15.49 millimetres, or 0.91 by 0.61 inch .
Young: Incubation is performed by the female alone, and is said to last about 14 days. Probably the young remain in the nest for about 2 weeks, where they are fed by both parents. Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes: “Oriole nestlings in general are proverbial cry-babies, and Scott Orioles are no exception. Insects of all sorts in all stages of development, fruit, and berries are served to them in such quick succession as to leave small time for the parent to hunt any for himself. At first the feeding is by regurgitation, but on the fourth or fifth day this method gives place to the more commonly observed one.” She says that a second brood is reared in a new nest in another tree.
Plumages: In juvenal plumage, according to Brewster (1902), “both sexes resemble the plain olive phase of the adult female, from which they differ only in having the upper parts browner, the light edging on the wing coverts and secondaries much broader and more or less tinged with yellowish.” Chapman (1923b) says: “Nestling birds of both sexes are olive-green above, yellower below, with no trace of black. At the postjuvenal (first fall molt) the male usually acquires a black throat and the back is more or less streaked. These markings, particularly above, are more or less fringed with grayish and olive, and are not fully revealed until, with the advancing new year, the feathers become worn and we have the first breeding plumage.” In his plate illustrating this plumage, the wide black throat patch extends upward to include the sides of the head and the forehead; the crown, hindneck, back, and lesser wing coverts are olive, spotted or streaked (on the back) with black. This plumage was evidently acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt involving all the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings nor the tail. The molt occurs in late July and August. There is apparently no prenuptial molt of consequence .
At the first postnuptial molt, the next summer, which is complete there is a decided advance toward maturity, but at least another year is required to assume the fully adult livery. During the spring migration in Arizona, Swartli (1904) secured a number of specimens of males in every stage of plumage, from those indistinguishable from the more highly colored females to those in fully adult plumage, all of which he describes in more or less detail .
The molts and plumages in the female are similar in sequence to those of the male, usually without much visible change, but some young birds acquire a little black on the throat at the postjuvenal molt, and some adult females have as much black on the throat as young males.
Food: Like other orioles, Scott’s must feed Largely on insects and their larvae, but there is considerable evidence that it eats some fruit and consumes the nectar from flowers, as some other orioles are known to do. Mrs. Kate Stephens (1906) says: “In front of our sitting room window and six feet distant are several aloes of a small species, bearing panicles of tubular orange flowers on stems about three feet high. In the latter part of April a male Scott oriole (Icterus panserum) alighted many times on these stems, most frequently mornings. He would thrust his bill deeply into the blossoms and appeared to suck the nectar. * * * I got the impression that he did not gather any insects.”
Bendire (1895) writes: “Their food consists mainly of grasshoppers, small beetles, caterpillars, butterflies, larvae, etc., as well as of berries and fruits. * * * I have seen them eating the ripe fig-like fruit of the giant cactus.”
Grinnell (1910) says that an “apricot orchard near Fairmont was freely patronized by the Scott Orioles from the neighboring yuccas. Two shot there had their gullets distended and faces smeared with apricot pulp.” And Frank Stephens (1903) found them “feeding on figs and peaches in the orchard” at Beale Spring .
A. W. Anthony (1894) writes: “In January, 1894, I found this Oriole wintering in the foothills just east of San Quintin, Lower California, and feeding extensively, if not altogether on the ripe fruit of the ‘pitahaya’ cactus (Gereus gunnosus). This fruit is about the size and shape of a small orange, bright scarlet when ripe. The flesh is similar to that of a ripe watermelon but much darker with an abundance of very small dark seeds. In flavor it is not unlike raspberries, but rather acid. Unless the fruit is abundant it is almost impossible to find any that has not been torn open and the inside eaten by the birds.”
Swarth (1904) says that “in feeding they sit quietly on the limbs prying and peering into such buds as are within reach, any necessary change of position being accomplished by clamoring along the branches with hardly any fluttering of the wings; and as their plumage, though bright, harmonizes exceedingly well with the surrounding foliage, they could be easily overlooked were it not for the loud notes to which the males give utterance at frequent interval.”
Song: When writing his account of this oriole Scott (1885) was impressed with the persistence of its vocal efforts. “Few birds sing more incessantly, and in fact I do not recall a species in the Eastern or Middle States that is to be heard as frequently. The males are, of course, the chief performers, but now and again, near a nest, * * * I would detect a female singing the same glad song, only more softly. At the earliest daybreak and all day long, even when the sun is at its highest, and during the great heat of the afternoon, its very musical whistle is one of the few bird songs that are ever present.” In Pinal County, Ariz., he observed that this bird arrived about the middle of April, and from then until July 29 he heard the song daily, even hourly, and during the height of the breeding season often many were singing within hearing at the same time.”
Dawson (1923) refers to it as “a golden song which poured down from a sycamore tree hard by. Ly ti ti tee to, ti ly ti ti te to, came the compelling outburst. I took it for a freak Meadowlark song at first, but once thoroughly aroused, knew it for an Icterine carol: Iy ti ti tee to, ti ly ti ti tee to: molten notes with a fond thrill to them, mere restrained than the clarion of the Meadowlark, smoother and sweeter than the tumult of a Bullock Oriole, and, of course, with the double repetition, a much longer song than either.”
Grinnell (1910) says of it: “The song was loud and full, better than that of the Bullock Oriole. It reminded me of the best efforts of the latter bird, and yet bore a strong resemblance in its quality to the song of the Western Meadowlark.” Others have noted this resemblance, which is a high compliment.
Field Marks: T he brilliant male in full plumage is strongly marked; the entire head, throat, neck, back, and the terminal part of the tail are black; the wings are mainly black, with yellow lesser coverts and broad white bands on the median and greater coverts; the breast, rump and much of the lateral tail feathers are bright lemon yellow, not orange as in most other orioles .
The female is yellowish olive above, mottled with dusky, and paler yellow below, but she has a black throat and two white wing bars. Other details are mentioned under plumages .
Fall: As is the case with most other orioles, Scott’s oriole is not much in evidence after the young are on the wing, and with the waning of the summer it seems to disappear from its breeding haunts. Mr. Scott (1885) writes: “After August 7 I missed the song, although the birds were abundant until the 10th of that month, and I saw a single bird or so for the following three days. Then I supposed they were all gone, but on the 14th of September, about dusk, I started one, an adult male, from a yucca where he had evidently gone to roost. He scolded angrily at me from the dead limb of a cedar near by for a few moments, when I left him to go to bed. Again, on the 18th of September, I heard a male in full song, and going closer found a party of four together, three old males and a young one of the year. This is my last note of their occurrence at this point.”
Winter: Scott’s oriole spends the winter south of our border, in central and southern Mexico, as far south as Veracruz, Guerrero, Puebla, and the Cape region of Baja California.
Range: Nevada, Arizona, and western Texas to central Mexico.
Breeding Range: Scott’s oriole breeds from southern Nevada (White Mountains, Charleston Mountains), southwestern Utah (Beaverdam Mountains), north-central Arizona (Wupatki National Monument), north-central New Mexico (San Miguel County, Montoya), and western Texas (Guadalupe Mountains, Chisos Mountains); south through southeastern California (Inyo Mountains, Campo) to southern Baja California (Cape San Lucas, Victoria Mountains), central-northern and southeastern Sonora (Nogales, Rancho Santa Barbara), and southeastern Coahuila (Las Delicias). Has nested recently in central-western Nevada (Stillwater) and northeastern Utah (Powder Springs).
Winter Range: Winters regularly north to northern Baja California (San Quintin, San Fernando) and southern Sonora (San Jos6 de Guaymas, Camoa); casually to southwestern California (Garnsey, San Diego); south to southern Baja California (Miraflores), central MichoacAn (P~tzcuaro), Guerrero (Chilpancingo) and Puebla (San Bartolo); east to western Nuevo Leo6 (Santa Catarina) and Hidalgo (Cuesta Texcueda, Pachuca).
Casual records: Casual in coastal California (Santa Barbara, San Diego), and in east-central Utah (25 miles east of Hanksville).
Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Chihuahua: Carrizalillo Mountains, April 18. Texas: El Paso, April 10; Glass Mountains, Brewster County, April 13. New Mexico: Carlsbad Cave, April 6; Silver City, April 19. Arizona: Patagonia, March 9; Tucson area, March 15 (median of 11 years, March 25). Utah: Washington County, May 6; Powder Springs, May 8. California: San Felipe Canyon, March 22; Reche Canyon near San Bernardino, April 1. Nevada: Searchlight, May 5; 10 miles east of Stiliwater, May 11 .
Late dates of spring departure are: Michoac~n: Chupicauro, April 29. Hidalgo: Cuesta Texquedo, April 7. Sonora: Tiburofi Island, April 11.
Early date of fall arrival: Baja California: San Andres, September 21.
Late dates of fall departure are: California: San Diego, September 2. Arizona: Huachuca Mountains, October 9 (median of 4 years, Cochise County, October 5).’ Texas: Hueco Mountains, El Paso County, October 17; Guadalupe Mountains, October 11.
Egg dates: Arizona: 11 records, May 15 to June 28; 6 records, May 22 to June 4.
California: 75 records, April 24 to June 25; 40 records, May 9 to May 22.
I October 25, 1905 (Bird-Lore, vol. 25, p. 389), Is a typographical error.