Here is a bird that lives up to its beautiful namethe word “oriole” derives from the Latin for “golden”.

There are four species of Old-World Orioles in southern Africa, with one occurring in our area, and our KwaZulu-Natal suburban garden is regularly visited by a pair of Black-headed Orioles. They are very striking birds, but despite the bright yellow and contrasting black head, they are not as easy to see as one might think. We see them fleetingly in undulating flight from tree to tree, and hear them calling from the treetops where they are often concealed from view.


A Black-headed Oriole in dappled shade in a Tree Fuschia (Halleria lucida) in our garden in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands

In South Africa, the Black-headed Oriole occurs in the eastern and northern areas and along the coastal region of the eastern and southern Cape. I have seen them in the Okavango Delta and elsewhere in Botswana, and they also occur in the extreme north of Namibia up into Angola and across the central regions to East Africa and then as far north as parts of Sudan.

The Black-headed Oriole’s diet comprises insects, caterpillars and other larvae, small fruits and berries, and nectar. For more specific details see here. Its varied habitat includes woodland, forest edges, riverine and coastal bush, plantations, farmland with large trees, parks and gardens. In fact, the Black-headed Oriole seems to be extending its range in the ever-increasing urban areas.

Black-headed Oriole calling in suburban garden

Perching in an unusually exposed spot, this Black-headed Oriole is calling to its mate, which is concealed nearby

Orioles are known for their brilliant colour (usually yellow) and also for their loud and melodious calls. The Black-headed Oriole calls frequently, both in flight and when perched in the tree canopy. Its loud liquid call is sometimes interspersed with a harsher almost screeching sound. It is hard to image a summer that is not filled with the calls of this oriole.

Juvenile Black-headed Oriole in suburban garden

Even this immature Black-headed Oriole, yet to get its adult plumage, is calling repeatedly. An adult bird, perhaps a parent, is in the same tree

Their reputation for being songbirds is reflected in two music recording companies being named after orioles. And, inspired by the loud and beautiful call as well as by the striking appearance of a North American oriole is the song “Baltimore Oriole”, written and first recorded in 1944 by Hoagy Carmichael (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster). The song was later covered by George Harrison on his Somewhere in England album released in 1981. The bird also inspired the name of the Baltimore R&B and early doo-wop vocal group, The Orioles. (As the Baltimore Oriole is the state bird of Maryland, the Baltimore baseball team also takes its name from the bird.)

Black-headed Oriole in KwaZulu-Natal suburban garden

All fluffed out during a grooming session on a leafless branch, this Black-headed Oriole is enjoying a brief moment of sunshine during a break in the late summer rains


The same Black-headed Oriole demonstrating that preening is hard work

Black-headed Oriole calling from a tree in a wildlife garden

I do hope that these photos help you see why the Black-headed Oriole is another of my favourite garden birds.

Sources: Biodiversity Explorer: The Web of Life in Southern Africa; Roberts Birds of Southern Africa (by Gordon Lindsay MacLean, 5th edition, 1985. Published by the Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town).

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa book cover

Posted by Carol