by Barry Kent MacKay
Illustration of Bobolink
by Barry Kent MacKay
With the bobolink you get, in effect,
two birds in one
As much as the bobolink has been loved
for its bright colours, ebullient song, and helpful diet of
insects and weed seeds injurious to cash cropsvery much
the farmers friendthe reed bird has been the subject
of hatred and persecution.
When Thoreau wrote of the male bobolinks
singing, he said, It is as if he touched his harp with
a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes
fell like bubbles from the strings
away he launches,
and the meadow is all bespattered with melody.
What inspired such prose is a small blackbird
with a patch of pale buff-yellow at the back of the neck and
an intricate pattern of black and white on his back. His sweetly
enthusiastic song is often sung as he hovers between flower-studded
green meadow and blue, early summer sky, long legs dangling,
wings quivering. At other times the bird may use his long
claws to cling to the top of a weed stalk, or perhaps perch
atop a tree or on a wire fence, and sing from there with mouth
open, throat throbbing, and the plush yellowish-buff feathers
of the nape puffed out.
And down amid the grasses is the smaller
female, her plumage a lovely golden buff, patterned with dark
brown mottling on back and wings that tends to blend into
a complex matrix of dried grasses and stems and weeds.
The birds name is onomatopoeicnamed
after the sound the bird makes. That song is often written
phonetically to include the phrase bob-o-link.
Two song types have been identified; an
alpha song that is roughly 7 seconds in length,
and a shorter beta song lasting just over 4 seconds.
They may serve differing functions, the alpha establishing
territory and attracting a mate, while the beta may be a challenge
to neighbouring males, but some studies indicate no such distinctions.
While always distinctively the song of
a bobolink, the exact nature and sequence of notes varies
from bird to bird. And songs also vary from field to field!
Bobolinks nest in fields and meadows, in loose colonies
made up of several breeding pairs. Scientists have found that
although the individual birds within any given nesting colony
may each have a slightly different song, their songs more
closely resemble one anothers, than do the melodies
uttered by bobolinks in other colonies. While they may share
a song dialect with their neighbors, male bobolinks
do stake out and defend from other males nesting territories
within the meadow.
Males arrive before the females each spring
and tend to return to the same nesting site year after year,
while females are more likely to stray to other habitat.
Bobolinks are prairie birds that moved
east, as far as Nova Scotia, with the clearing of farmland.
In Ontario they are most abundant in open farm country of
southwestern Ontario, and the eastern townships. They have,
however, nested in suitable habitat well up into central Ontario,
even as far north as Lake of the Woods, and the James Bay
They arrive here in May, the males conspicuous
as they perch on fences along country roads. The nest, well
hidden, is often tucked into the base of a tussock of grass,
and normally contains from three to seven eggs, with five
being the usual number. The pretty eggs are grey or blue-grey,
speckled and spotted with dark earth colours and reddish-browns.
When the last egg but one is laid, incubation begins.
The male may have as many as four mates,
but typically helps feed the babies of only the primary mate.
Other lady bobolinks he has paired with are on their own,
although sometimes apparently unattached males or females
may assist feeding the young. Incubation takes about 13 days,
with the babies dependent for about 11 days more.
With the bobolink you get, in effect,
two birds in one. The other bird has been called
the reed bird, or the rice bird. As much as the bobolink has
been loved for its bright colours, ebullient song, and helpful
diet of insects and weed seeds injurious to cash cropsvery
much the farmers friendthe reed bird has been
the subject of hatred and persecution.
In July and August, nesting complete,
the male bobolink molts its breeding plumage in exchange for
the streaked golden-brown winter plumage, similar to that
of the females and young. Gone, too, is the cheerful song,
replaced by a distinctive, not-quite-metallic chink or pink
note. No longer a territorial bird, in fall bobolinks gather
in large flocks, sometimes joined by other members of the
blackbird family, such as brown-headed cowbirds or common
grackles. They have one of the longest migration routes of
any songbird, many flying all the way to the pampas of southern
South America. A few winter in western Peru.
Also gone by August is the birds
voracious appetite for insects. Autumn bob-olinks, formerly
known as reed birds, or less printable soubriquets, are mostly
seed-eaters, their diet including farm crops, particularly
rice. I can recall visiting millet farms in Oxford County,
Ontario, in the late 1950s, and seeing farm hands with sawed-off
shotguns firing into vast, swirling flocks of thousands of
southward-bound bobolinks attracted by the field of millet
grown for the pet shop industry. Similar barrages awaited
them in the rice paddies of the southeastern U.S.
And since they gain a heavy layer of fat
each fall, they were once considered a tasty gamebird, shot
by hunters who did not realize (and sometimes refused to believe)
that the reed birds they hunted were the same species as the
bobolinks they welcomed back each spring.
The greatest threat to the bobolink nowadays
is loss of field and prairie habitat. Quick-ripening hay with
early hay harvests contribute to their demise in large numbers.
In much of Ontario and other parts of their range, they have
gone from being abundant to being all too rare.
You can still find bobolinks in fields
and meadows, pastures and fallow farm fields throughout most
of southern and central Ontario. Their cheerful countenance
and voice are there to charm us in bucolic settings, where
the field daisies and buttercups grow.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 50, Summer 2005. Copyright Barry Kent MacKay.
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