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All About Dickcissels

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the attached photo. In the middle of all those sparrows eating on our tray feeder is a bird with bits of yellow on its breast. We are pretty sure the bird is a Dickcissel. We’ve never seen one in our yard before. Is it rare? What else can you tell us about this bird?

– Beth and Terry, Chatham, MA


Oh man, Beth and Terry,

Not another bird with a suggestive name. Suddenly November has become the snicker month. Last week we had a question about titmice and now it’s Dickcissels. What’s next week’s question going to be about, Blue-footed Boobies? Right now I can see all of the newspaper’s editors frantically flipping through the nearest bird book wondering if Dickcissels are real birds or if they are being punked. It’s a good thing you didn’t ask this question back when stodgy old John Ashcroft was our Attorney General or you might be getting your answer wrapped in a blue curtain.

Yes, Dickcissels are real birds (so all you copyeditors can relax). In fact, they are small, sparrow-ish looking birds. The male Dickcissel is mostly brown with a black bib and yellow on his chest. He looks like a cross between a sparrow and a meadowlark. The young and the female Dickcissels have little or no bib and just splotches of yellow, looking like a cross between a sparrow and a guy who just ate a hotdog and was a little careless with the mustard.

I can understand why you aren’t familiar with Dickcissels because they are infrequent visitors to New England. They typically breed near farms and grasslands in the Midwest. But this wasn’t always the case. I don’t know how old you are, Beth and Terry, but if you were around here during the time of Civil War you would have seen plenty of Dickcissels. They were fairly common birds in the eastern half of the U.S. during the 1800s. But then something happened and they all moved west. No one is sure why they left this area, but it could’ve had to do with changes in the landscape caused by the growing number of farms that began to appear in the Great Plains at that time. Although if you asked me what happened to the Dickcissels I’d blame cats. I have no evidence to back this up, but I just like to blame cats for everything.

The rather odd name of this bird has to do with the male’s song. To some ears it apparently sounds like the bird is singing “dick, dick, sissel, sissel.” Yeah, maybe, I guess. But this bird has more peculiar things going for it than just its name. For one thing, no one really knows what family Dickcissels belong to. To most of us they look and act like sparrows, but they aren’t sparrows. That would be too easy. At one time Dickcissels were thought to be blackbirds, even though they don’t look like blackbirds and they aren’t black. Recently researchers have put them in with the family of birds that also includes cardinals. I’m sure the Dickcissels were thrilled with this new classification upgrade. It makes a huge difference at parties if the birds can say they are related to cardinals instead of sparrows or blackbirds. It’s no secret that chicks dig cardinals, but blackbirds, not so much.

Speaking of parties, it turns out that the male Dickcissel is quite the player. When the male arrives on the breeding grounds the first thing he does is stake out a territory by singing and strutting his stuff. In his little birdie brain he thinks good singing, combined with a super hot bod will attract the most ladies. Nope. Not even close. The truth is the females want a male that has acquired the best territory for nesting. Having a good voice is fine but these females are all about prime real estate.

After a brief courtship a Dickcissel couple will mate and then get down to the business of raising a family. Well, the female will get down to the family business, but the male wants none of it. He figures his work is done, so he goes back to singing and looking for more females. If another female stops by he’ll mate with her, too. After that he goes back to singing and perhaps more mating. Some male Dickcissels may have as many as six females nesting in their territories. How can a male get away with having so many mates, you ask? It’s easy. If a female Dickcissel gets suspicious and asks her mate where he has been all day, he simply says he’s been “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.” It works every time.

Usually Dickcissels head to Central and South America after the breeding season, but a few remain in North America and are liable to turn up anywhere. These stragglers often come to backyard feeders in the company of House Sparrows. It was very observant of you to pick out the lone Dickcissel among all those House Sparrows. Both birds can look confusingly similar in the fall.

Thanks for the question and photo, Beth and Terry. I was glad to write about Dickcissels, just as I was happy to write about titmice last week. But I’m telling you right now, if next week’s question is about boobies I’m forwarding it to the ghost of Benny Hill.