DICKCISSEL (SPIZA AMERICANA)

Birds of the Month | April 30, 2018
DICKCISSEL (SPIZA AMERICANA)
I am sure I am not alone when I say that this bird was a nemesis bird for me until I finally saw it, in all its glory, at the Celery Fields, in company with the munias, last spring. Each year one (or two) are seen in Sarasota County. They have come and gone, seen by few. It seemed to me that my US visits were always too early or too late, but in truth, I wasn’t the only one to miss the sporadic sightings. Anyway, it showed up again this year, a seemingly solitary bird of its kind, in the same area as last year. And again I saw it, flying from the grassy area into a tree where it sat for a while, sun shining on its glorious yellow chest and black throat, like a miniature meadowlark.
Reflecting on this bird I realized I didn’t know anything at all about it – which makes it a pretty good choice as Bird of the Month! Anyway I did find out some cool facts about it. Here are some of them.
The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird named for the male song which has been described as a sharp ‘dick dick’ followed by a buzzed ‘cissel’. If you listen to it on this attached recording, or some other app, you may be a little bemused, like me, as to the connection between what you hear and the explanation given. But that might be just me….
The scientific name is ‘Spiza americana’, the spiza being the Ancient Greek catch-all term for finch-like bird. It used to be called a ‘Black-throated Bunting’, a name given to it by John James Audubon, but unlike the true buntings (which are part of the Emberizidae family), the Dickcissel is a member of the Cardinalidae family – so not a bunting at all. Eventually the name Dickcissel replaced Black-throated Bunting, an interesting case of a nickname having ousted a name once in frequent use.
How surprising then, the occasional spring sightings in Sarasota, given that this little bird winters in huge flocks of over a million birds on its wintering grounds in the llanos (the seasonally flooded grasslands and savannas) of central Venezuela, and other places where it winters nomadically from West Mexico to northern South America. On its wintering ground up to 10%-30% of the global population may occur in a single roost. So bear in mind if and when you see the little lone bird at the Celery Fields that this bird is into seriously huge flocks.
In Spring the Dickcissel migrates to its breeding grounds on the grasslands of the central USA, where it inhabits hay fields, fallow fields, weedy ditches and grasslands. It is essentially a wanderer, appearing in large numbers at a breeding ground one year and totally absent the next. In fact the Dickcissel, amazingly, remains one of the most typical and abundant breeding birds of the North American prairie grasslands, where it indulges in polygamous mating procedures, males having up to six mates.
Although the Dickcissel is on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as of least concern it does have some major threats to its existence. On its wintering grounds in Venezuela roosts are regularly poisoned with toxic agrochemicals, and because of the high concentration at these roosts they are particularly susceptible to such threats. However on its breeding ground it is tolerant of agricultural activities and has the ability to move in response to drought.
So may this hardy little bird continue to flourish. And may our Celery Fields bird join a flock and find a mate.