A bird species known as a symbol of Maryland is becoming a fixture in South Carolina — and grape jelly might be the reason people are spotting more of the colorful birds in the Palmetto State.
Baltimore orioles showed up in greater numbers this past winter in South Carolina than most other Southern states, reflecting a trend found over the past four years, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
It is possible that warmer weather, driven by the earth's changing climate, is a factor in the birds' winter stops in the Palmetto State.
But some scientists think another factor is in play: Homeowners are putting jelly and other tasty treats in backyard feeders to attract the birds.
As a result, the orioles are stopping in South Carolina for delicious food rather than going all the way to the tropics for the winter, several researchers say.
“More people are feeding grape jelly and fruit to them,’’ said Clemson University scientist Patrick McMillan, who hosts the nationally broadcast nature show "Expeditions'' on PBS. “As long as a food source is present, they’re interested. They are fruit eaters.’’
Orioles will munch on plenty of things, including insects. But state wildlife technician Lex Glover said it is hard for them to resist sweets.
“Why risk going across the Gulf of Mexico when you can stop and survive here and not face dangers?’’ Glover said. “They really like grape jelly. It’s, by far, the most popular food for them.''
Baltimore orioles, small song birds that inspired the name of the American League baseball team, are best known for their brilliant orange and black plumage. The state bird of Maryland, orioles are smaller than robins, roughly matching red-winged black birds in size.
For years, Baltimore orioles have spent winters in Florida, said Marc Devokaitis, a spokesman for Cornell University's nationally known ornithology laboratory. Now, more of them are wintering farther north. This winter, that particularly was noticeable in some urban areas, including Charleston, he said.
The Audubon Society's Matt Johnson suspects climate change is a major factor in the birds' changing migration pattern, noting S.C. winters generally are milder today than in years past. The average winter temperature in the Lowcountry now is more than 51 degrees, compared to 48.5 degrees in 1985, according to federal data.
Active efforts by backyard bird enthusiasts who are putting out food also might be attracting more orioles, Johnson added.
Surveys conducted by state and federal agencies identified 228 orioles in South Carolina this winter, with the largest number spotted in Charleston County, according to Natural Resources. Overall, the brightly colored birds showed up in 13 counties, including Richland, Beaufort and Horry.
The numbers were down this year, compared to 2017, but Glover said the lower 2018 numbers might be only a seasonal trend. Part of this winter was colder than in 2017, he noted.
For now, most of the orioles that wintered here likely have flown back north to Maryland and other East Coast states. But Glover said he expects the birds will be back, as long as they find good weather and the food they crave.
"They will almost always come right back to where they spent the previous winter,'' he said. "They know where the food sources are. It's better to go there, than some place they haven't been before.''