Oriole name migrates to Baltimore

March 07, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

After 22 years, Baltimore has its oriole back.

At its annual meeting in Baton Rouge, La., last weekend, a committee of the American Ornithologists Union reversed its 1973 decision and reclassified the eastern race of the northern oriole as the "Baltimore oriole."

Because of its supposed wanderlust, the eastern race had been lumped with its western cousin, the Bullock's oriole, into one species called the northern oriole, even though the birds have generally different plumages, songs and habitats.

New studies show that the Baltimore oriole -- the Maryland state bird whose name and orange and black colors were adopted by the city's major-league baseball team -- is not guilty of as much "interbreeding" with its western cousin as had been thought.

"It's nice to have it back," Shirley Geddes, an information director and longtime member of the Baltimore Bird Club, said of the Baltimore oriole name. "Now all we have to do is get the baseball team back."

Baltimoreans can thank James Rising, a professor of zoology at the University of Toronto and a fan of the Blue Jays. His studies over the past 30 years, among others, showed that the two birds did not interbreed significantly and should not be considered one species.

Studies by Dr. Rising and others conducted in Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, where the Baltimore and Bullock's orioles are found together, showed that they were not "freely interbreeding," said Van Remsen, a professor and curator of birds at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

Reclassifying the birds as two species "is not just a whimsical change," Dr. Remsen said. "We rely completely on published, scientific data."

The vote of the ornithologists' Committee on Classification and Nomenclature was unanimous, Dr. Remsen, one of the panel's seven members, said yesterday. The splitting of the birds into two species, with different common and scientific names, will be official when the organization's supplement to the checklist of North American birds is published this year.

Studies in the late 1950s led to the northern oriole classification. But Dr. Rising revisited river valleys in western Kansas in the late 1970s and in 1992 to collect data on the birds.

"They are very different birds," Dr. Rising said of the renamed Baltimore and Bullock's orioles.

The male Baltimore oriole has a uniformly black head and upper back and a bright orange belly and rump.

The male Bullock's oriole also is generally orange and black, but it has an orange strip over its eyes and large white wing patch.

The Baltimore oriole has a more varied and musical song. And it prefers wetter habitats.

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