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Bobolink. Illustration by Barry Kent MacKayBobolink

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 crops—very much the farmers’ friend—the reed bird has been the subject of hatred and persecution.

When Thoreau wrote of the male bobolink’s 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 bird’s name is onomatopoeic—named 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 another’s, 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 lowlands.

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 crops—very much the farmers’ friend—the 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 bird’s 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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