Icterus prosthemelasblack-cowled oriole

Geographic Range

Black-cowled orioles are native to coastal Mexico and Central America. Their range extends from southern Mexico, down the Atlantic coast of Central America to the Isthmus of Panama and includes the entire Yucatan peninsula. In Mexico, black-cowled orioles can be found in eastern Veracruz, northern Chiapas, northern Oaxaca, and in Yucatan (Howell 1999; Howell and Webb 1995; Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Toledo 1977) The nominate subspecies is found in the northern half of the range to Nicaragua. A second subspecies, I. p. praecox, is found from Nicaragua to the southernmost reaches of the range (Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Will 1991). A vagrant black-cowled oriole was sighted as far north as Nova Scotia (MacLaren 1981). (Howell and Webb, 1995; Howell, 1999; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; MacLaren, 1981; Toledo, 1977; Will, 1991)


Black-cowled orioles are a habitat edge species, preferring woodland and open fields with scattered brush (Howell 1999; Howell and Webb 1995; Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Will 1991). This species is also frequently seen in orchards, especially citrus plantations (Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Will 1991). They have also been seen in stands of bamboo and banana. This species also inhabits second-growth forest. Black-cowled orioles are found at elevations up to 3000 m (Davis 1972). (Davis, 1972; Howell and Webb, 1995; Howell, 1999; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Will, 1991)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 3000 m
    0.00 to 9842.52 ft

Physical Description

Black-cowled orioles are small black and yellow orioles (Skutch 1996) found in Mexico and Central America. In adult males the head, wings, tail and chest are black while the back and underparts are yellow. A yellow wing patch (epaulet) is present in males, which is duller in females and immature individuals. A reddish-brown line divides the black and yellow patches where they meet at the chest (Davis 1972; Jaramillo and Burke 1999). As in other orioles, the bill is slightly curved and black, juveniles have a pinkish bill. Adult females are similar to adult males, but have duller plumage. The upperparts, which are yellow in males, are washed olive, the crown and nape are dull olive-yellow, though these regions are black in the male, and the wings are brownish, instead of the jet-black seen in males. Juveniles are similar in coloration to adult females, but are even duller (Howell and Webb 1995; Jaramillo and Burke 1999). (Davis, 1972; Howell and Webb, 1995; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Skutch, 1996)

Black-cowled orioles may be mistaken in the field for Audubon’s orioles (Icterus graduacauda) or yellow-tailed orioles (Icterus chrysater) (Davis 1972; Howell and Webb 1995). However, Audubon’s orioles do not share their range with black-cowled orioles, while yellow-tailed orioles are brighter yellow and have more black on the shoulders (Howell and Webb 1995). (Davis, 1972; Howell and Webb, 1995)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male more colorful


Black-cowled orioles are sexually monogamous, their breeding season lasting from March until July (Jaramillo and Burke 1999). (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Black-cowled orioles attempt to raise a single clutch of two to four eggs per breeding season, like most other oriole species. The nest is a hanging basket that is woven of fine fibers and is usually placed underneath a banana leaf. The nest is attached to the leaf in an unusual manner: a bird will puncture the leaf to thread fiber through the leaf, resulting in a nest that is “sewn” into the tree. Though black-cowled orioles prefer banana trees, they will also nest in true palms or sago palms (Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Skutch 1996). An old source claims that a mated pair will cooperate to construct a nest (which would be unusual for songbirds) (Jaramillo and Burke 1999). (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Skutch, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    A single clutch is laid per breeding season.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from March until July.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 4

Parental investment could not be evaluated given available information. Parents cooperate to raise their young.

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


Information on lifespan is not available in the literature.


Small flocks of black-cowled orioles have been observed during summer. These flocks often include juveniles and are most likely family units. Black-cowled orioles join flocks with other orioles during the non-breeding season. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Home Range

Due to a lack of information, the home range of this species could not be evaluated.

Communication and Perception

Black-cowled orioles are a relatively quiet species and have been described as being difficult to hear in the field. Their song is described by Jaramillo and Burke (1999) as a “sweet, soft warble”. The primary call has been described by Howell and Webb (1995) as being a harsh cheh-cheh-cheh-chek. A single note from the previously described phrase is occasionally heard. (Howell and Webb, 1995; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Howell and Webb, 1995; Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Food Habits

Black-cowled orioles are largely frugivorous, but supplements their diet with insects and nectar. They prefer nectar from legumes, citrus, agave, and yucca. Black-cowled orioles are ‘nectar robbers’: they pierce the base of a flower to drain the nectar. As in other oriole species, members of this species have been known to employ "gaping" to forage in epiphytes, prying open plant material with its strong bill to gain access to burrowing insects (Jaramillo and Burke 1999; Skutch 1996). (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999; Skutch, 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • nectar


Although there is little information regarding the natural predators of black-cowled orioles, potential predators include jays, squirrels, snakes and raptors. The eggs and young of sympatric oriole species are prey to the aforementioned predator species. (Jaramillo and Burke, 1999)

Ecosystem Roles

Black-cowled orioles likely spread seeds through their feces and may aid in expanding the range of some plants. In addition, this species plays a minor role in regulating insect populations. Black-cowled orioles appear to be a favored host for shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) (Jaramillo and Burke 1999). See “Food Habits” and “Predation” for more information.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Black-cowled orioles may occasionally help to pollinate crop fruit trees and disperse the seeds of fruits they eat, thus rendering "ecosystem services" (e.g., carbon sequestering by tropical forests).

  • Positive Impacts
  • pollinates crops
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Although black-cowled orioles are frugivorous, there is no indication that they are considered a major crop pest.

Conservation Status

Black-cowled orioles are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN. Population size is estimated as greater than 50,000 worldwide and does not appear to have greatly declined in numbers (Butchart, Ekstrom, and Bird 2009). Population density for this species is greatest in Nicaragua, Panama, and southwest Yucatan. This species is protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act. (Butchart, et al., 2009)

Other Comments

Phylogenetic analysis based on mitochondrial DNA sequences suggested that the Icterus dominicensis group was in fact polyphyletic. The subspecies I. d. prosthemelas is most closely related to the orchard oriole group (Icterus spurius). The conservation of the general plumage patterning indicates that the pattern seen in Icterus prosthemelas from the Caribbean Islands— black upperparts, wings, and tail with bright underparts and a bright epaulet—is most likely the ancestral state for the clade containing Icterus prosthemelas, Icterus dominicensis, Icterus oberi, and Icterus cayanensis (Omland et al. 2000) In addition to sharing most recent common ancestors, the geographic ranges of Icterus prosthemelas and Icterus fuertesi are adjacent to one another (though the two species are allopatric). (Omland, et al., 1999; Omland, et al., 1999; Omland, et al., 1999)


Matthew Murphy (author), University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kevin Omland (editor), University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


Butchart, S., J. Ekstrom, J. Bird. 2009. "BirdLife International (2009) Species factsheet: Icterus prosthemelas" (On-line). Accessed January 22, 2010 at www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=31354&m=0#.

Davis, L. 1972. A field guide to the birds of Mexico and Central America. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Howell, S. 1999. A bird-finding guide to Mexico. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Howell, S., S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc..

Jaramillo, A., P. Burke. 1999. New World Blackbirds: the Icterids. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacLaren, I. 1981. The incidence of vagrant landbirds on Nova Scotian islands. The Auk, 98: 243-257.

Omland, K., S. Lanyon, S. Fritz. 1999. A molecular phylogeny of the New World orioles (Icterus): the importance of dense taxon sampling. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 12: 224-239.

Skutch, A. 1996. Orioles, Blackbirds, & Their Kin: A Natural History. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Toledo, V. 1977. Pollination of some rain forest plants by non-hovering birds in Veracruz, Mexico. Biotropica, 9(4): 262-267.

Will, T. 1991. Birds of a severely hurricane-damaged Atlantic coast rain forest in Nicaragua. Biotropica, 23(4a): 497-507.