Bobolink (Dolychonyx oryzivorus)

Birds of the Month | May 3, 2017
Bobolink (Dolychonyx oryzivorus)

Bobolink (Dolychonyx oryzivorus)

SRQ is such a great place for birders, isn’t it? The winter certainly has its charms with the arrival of ducks, rails, sparrows etc. And then the long awaited Spring migration can produce such marvels, especially in the Warbler species. However one of the most eagerly anticipated single bird species is surely the Bobolink. It is so predictable that Jeanne Dubi long ago named tax day as the day it would arrive. It used to turn up like clockwork on the Walker parcel at the far end of Raymond Rd, but with the re-jig of the Celery fields it has a less certain place to go. However, thankfully, it is still showing up.

The Bobolink is the standard English name for a single species in the New World blackbird family (Icteridae). It is the only bird in the genus Dolichonyx, meaning ‘long claw’ (dolikhos=long, onux= claw). The specific oryzivorus is from the latin oryza= rice and vorare= devour, so its name means a long-clawed rice eater! In fact an old name for this species is ‘Rice bird’ because on migration they would migrate in flocks feeding on cultivated grains and rice. The English name ‘Bobolink’ is from Bob o’Lincoln, echoing the birds bubbling song, which of course we seldom if ever hear. Sibley describes this song as ‘a bubbling, jangling, rising warble with short notes on wide pitch range’. If you have the Sibley app it’s worth listening to it. There’s an odd mechanical aspect to the song that makes it sound like a child’s toy. Thoreau recorded a Cape Cod boy’s reaction to a singing Bobolink: ‘What makes he sing so sweet, Mama? Do he eat flowers?’

By the way, the collective name for a group of Bobolinks is a ‘chain’.

Bobolinks undertake the longest migration of any North American land-bird species, its greatest mileage being from southern Canada to the grasslands of Northern Argentina. One bird was tracked migrating 12,000 miles over the course of the year, often flying long distances up to 1,100 miles in a single day, then stopping to recuperate for days or weeks.

Along with Meadowlarks the Bobolink is the quintessential songbird of North American grasslands. It breeds in open grassy fields, especially hay fields, across southern Canada and the northern United States. Females lay 5/6 eggs in a cup-shaped nest, which is always situated on the ground and is usually well hidden in dense vegetation. Both parents feed the young.

So a thought about the birds that arrive on tax day.

Firstly, what a privilege to be a staging post on their long journey north. When the Bobolink stops with us for a week or so it’s only half way on its long journey. It’s a traveller passing through. And as with all travellers we must show it hospitality. The best way to do this is to hang on to those untidy grassy meadows, where they can rest and forage on seeds and insects.

Secondly, no wonder they are hard to see. They feed on the ground in the long grass, so patience is certainly needed to see them but they do stay and rest up for quite a while, so we can all get to see them.

And lastly, the male birds are very distinctive as well as being gorgeous. A male Bobolink in Spring is unlike any other Florida bird in color pattern, with totally black underparts and tail and a mostly black head, sharply contrasting with a creamy nape and neck and otherwise white scapulars, lower backs and rumps. They can hardly be mistaken for any other bird. The females are a little more challenging to identify, being rather sparrow-like in appearance. If you get a chance to see one with fairly close or prolonged views look for the pale unstreaked nape and evenly buffy underparts, as well as its location and habits.

By the way, you might ask why we don’t see Bobolinks on their Fall migration south. The reason is that in the Fall males resemble females and juveniles, making them less distinctive. In addition Fall flocks generally feed in agricultural fields north of Florida and acquire the enormous fat supply needed for a long nonstop flight to South America.

So I guess the message is, enjoy them while you can.

Glynnis Thomas