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#ABArare – Black-backed Oriole – Pennsylvania

Even though it’s only February, we might already have a winner for the least expected ABA Area vagrant for 2017. On January 31st a resident of Berks County, Pennsylvania, noticed and photographed a strange oriole in their yard. The bird was posted to the Advanced Bird ID Facebook group where it was quickly identified as a Black-backed Oriole, a central Mexican endemic. Pending acceptance this is a potential 1st ABA Area record.

The bird is being seen at 20 and 21 Indiana Ave, Sinking Spring, Berks County, Pennsylvania. This is just northwest of Philadelphia. The homeowners are open to visitors provided those visitors follow these VERY IMPORTANT RULES.

• Visiting hours 7:30 am to 4 pm only
• Parking, for now on Indiana St.
• Be courteous, don’t block driveways or mail boxes.
• Please sign the Logbook the homeowners are in knowing who comes to see the bird and where they come from.
• Please don’t stand right in front of the house to keep from scaring the Bird away from the feeder by the front window! The bird is shy!
• Please stay on the sidewalks and don’t enter people’s yards.
• Respect the neighborhood’s privacy and property.

Black-backed Oriole is a central Mexican endemic, formerly considered to be conspecific with Baltimore Oriole and still occasionally treated as conspecific with Bullock’s Oriole. In its normal range it is a short-distant migrant, with some pattern of vagrancy.

Notably, this is not the first incidence of this species in the ABA Area. In 2000, a Black-backed Oriole was present from April-June in San Diego, California, returning the next summer. That bird was accepted by that state’s Bird Records Committee until it was refound in its preferred eucalyptus grove in January of 2002, at which point the committee felt it had reason to suspect that it was an escaped cage bird and removed it from the list in as much as its status could be determined. Many observers believed that this species was still a good candidate to occur in the ABA Area, though perhaps none would have predicted Pennsylvania. More information on the California bird is available here.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Peter Coo

    Mexican endemic, highly distinctive, not a long-distance migrant … I’d be willing to bet the farm that this bird did NOT reach Pa. unassisted. (How to prove it, one way or the other … not trivial.)

    • Cole G.

      I completely agree. I’ve seen many online suggest that it’s likely wild due to their lack of presence in the cagebird trade. Those who use this argument should keep in mind that there are records of extremely unusual exotics all over the ABA, including Giant Wood-Rail in Washington and Black Siskin in Rhode Island.

      • David Sibley

        Hi Cole G., I’ve been gathering records of exotics found in the ABA area, and these are two that I didn’t know about. If you have any more details about them I’d be interested, You can reach me directly through the contact link at Thanks!

        • Cole G.

          Giant Wood-Rail – Clark, WA:

          Picture of the bird sent to me by a birder in Seattle:

          I heard about the Black Siskin from a birder in Rhode Island in September 2015. No further details were provided by him, but he did not see it.

          • David Sibley


        • Dylan Pedro

          I saw that Black Siskin. It took us about 30 minutes to identify! But obviously a cage bird, in fact it was clinging to lobster cages as if it were back in its domicile. I can send photos if you still want them

    • Hugh

      it would be interesting to get a feather and look at stable isotopes – that ought to reveal something about what latitude the bird last molted in, which might help rule out either Pennsylvania or Mexico

  • George Armistead

    Great post per usual Nate. I think if people want to posit that this is not a natural vagrant, then the onus is on them to prove that case. Meanwhile I shall petition the NACC to rename this bird “Monarch-eater”.

    • Matt Brady

      I’ll bet you thought the European Robin and Bahama Woodstar were legit too!

    • Jay M Sheppard

      Can any other pics show the tail tips, etc.? A little blurry in the only one I have seen. Frayed tips might be indicative of captivity…BUT it could have just finished molting a few months ago, if it was wandering around the region for that period. Certainly strange record!!???

  • Tom Binder

    I was lucky enough to see this bird this morning at our bird bath in our back yard at 21 Indiana Ave, thanks to Frank Haas who was kind enough to tell me about this rare bird sighting. Beautiful little bird! If you visit please sign the log book outside. Here are the photos Frank took through the back door.

  • MC

    It was 18 Indiana. Not 21

    • Mike Slater

      Mr. Binder lives at #21 Indiana Ave. and it was indeed at his backyard birdbath. Mr. Binder has been an incredibly gracious and welcoming host for visiting birders and has even provided hot coffee and well as allowing people to stand in his driveway .The original report came from the Sue and Dick Hybki who live at #20 and it is spending its time this morning (Sat Feb. 4) at the feeder in their back yard. It is visible by looking between #20 and #22 Indiana Ave from the sidewalk and driveway at #21.

  • jmorlan

    More information on the San Diego record is here….

    Scroll down.

  • Paul Lehman

    It is interesting (and sad) that many observers still post this record on eBird and elsewhere as the “first sighting” or “first record” in the ABA Area, when clearly there was a record before, with questionable origin, not questionable ID. The San Diego bird was never proven to be an escape, but its very, very long (multi-year) stay suggested it might well be an escape, so too much question in the minds of many. And I do not know who all these people are who thought this species a “good candidate” to occur here as a natural vagrant. Whether it is found or not in zoos or legit aviaries nearby is irrelevant. It is the huge illicit bird trade that counts, and there are plenty of recent immigrants in eastern PA who likely brought such captive birds with them. But on the flip side, a number of species thought to be essentially resident have turned up as far-flung rarities (presumed wild) over the years, too. So, what are the vagrant records of this species alluded to here? How far outside of the normal range? And what is this species’ status in the illegal cage-bird trade–which may or may not be very easy to figure out. I think the onus of proving the greater likelihood in a case such as this–where the cagebird trade is a more likely a player than with the vagrant Bahama Woodstar, for example–is on BOTH those who think it wild and who think more likely an escape. In fact, until more background can be presented, this bird is likely best put in the “unknowable” category and is one of those “gray zone” birds where origin is just not clear. (Although, personally, I am somewhat more negative than probably many are here, but I anxiously await more research into both scenarios!)

    Paul Lehman, San Diego

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