Dear Bird Folks,
This past weekend I went for a walk in a nearby community garden, where I came upon this bird (see photo). It looks like a large sparrow, but I can’t find it in my old book. Any idea?
– John, Canaan, CT
No problem, John,
Even without looking at your photo, I can tell which bird it is. It’s not that I’m psychic, but anytime someone sees a “large sparrow,” it invariably turns out to be a female Red-winged Blackbird. Unlike the male, with his jet-black body and colorful wing patches, the female redwing is streaky brown and basically looks like a hefty sparrow. It’s that simple. Now that I’ve said all of that, I’ll check out your photo. Yup, it’s a…uh-oh. It’s not a female redwing at all. I was wrong. (I hate saying those words.) Your mystery bird is actually a Bobolink. But wait, Bobolinks are in the blackbird family, so technically I was correct. Well, I was sort of correct. Oh, forget it. Grrr. Maybe I shouldn’t try to judge a book by its cover, without at least looking at the cover first.
Blackbirds are a diverse family of birds that also includes meadowlarks, cowbirds, orioles and grackles. (Yes, your beloved orioles are related to those dreaded grackles. Funny how that works.) Also in this group is the Bobolink, a bird that has one of my all-time favorite bird names ever. It is said that the name, “Bobolink,” is based on the bird’s call. Apparently, someone heard “Bob O’Lincoln” coming from the bird. Really? What a disappointing backstory for such a cool name, and I don’t get it. I’ve heard Bobolinks singing in the field and have listened to recordings of their songs and all I hear is a jumble of notes, none of which mention anyone named Lincoln. I even tried listening to the bird’s song electronically slowed down, but the only thing I got from doing that was a 60’s flashback.
Like meadowlarks, Bobolinks are birds of meadows and fields, and aren’t typically found in neighborhoods or on feeders. If you grew up in farm country, then you probably looked forward to the Bobolinks’ arrival each spring. It’s the same way the rest of us look forward to the return of orioles and grackles (that last one is probably just me and other birdseed sellers). In the breeding season, the male Bobolink is distinctive. He has a solid black front and is mostly white on the back, with a large buff-yellow patch on the back of his head. The males are conspicuous as they sing and fly above their territories. Because Bobolinks require specific habitat (open fields) they tend to breed in loose colonies. In other words, if you find one pair of breeding Bobolinks, you are likely to find two, or three or ten.
When it comes to raising a family, Bobolinks do things differently. Instead of having a single mate, the male may breed with two females, or three, but probably not ten. However, he’s no deadbeat dad. He is attentive to his nests and will help provide food to his many nestlings. Some traditional folks might disapprove of the male’s philandering ways, but before you form your opinion, there is something else you should know. The female Bobolinks aren’t so innocent either. Recent DNA studies indicate that she also gets a little on the side. Tests have shown that her nestlings often have the genes of several different males. It seems what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…and for Mrs. Bobolink.
Once the breeding season is over and the males no longer need to be in their Sunday best, they molt out of their breeding plumage. From September to March, male Bobolinks look very much like females. This isn’t such a bad thing, because the females look fine. Well, they look fine, except they also kind of look like large sparrows and that can be confusing for new birders who are still using “old” books. I’m just saying.
After molting, Bobolinks begin to prepare for migration, and what a long migration it is. The bird you saw in the community garden last week will soon be headed south, but not south to Virginia, or Florida or any of those places we think of as being south. Each fall these two-ounce birds make a trek across the Caribbean, over Venezuela and all the way down to Argentina. Then, in the spring, they fly back here again. That’s a round trip of over 20,000 kilometers, which I’m sure is a lot of miles.
Because Bobolinks don’t always get along with farmers, they are sometimes persecuted for being agricultural pests, or hunted for food or kept in cages as pets. Changes in land use, however, are the birds’ biggest problems. In order to produce greater yields, fields are now being mowed earlier, before the young ground-nesting birds are able to fly and out of the way of the machinery. As a result, The Bobolink Project was created to not only protect Bobolinks but also to help other grassland birds, because baby birds and machinery are never a good mix.
Finally, here’s something you might not know, John. Bobolinks love to eat rice and are notorious for invading rice farms during migration. I’m only mentioning this because some people still think rice is harmful to birds and that it shouldn’t be thrown at weddings. This is just silly. Rice is a grain and birds have been eating grains for centuries. However, if you are still worried about the rice thing, you could always throw birdseed at your next wedding. I’m totally okay with that.