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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Not all gloom and doom for musical bobolinks

Blane Klemek

The blackbird family, Icteridae, includes 23 species in eight genera. Among this group are cowbirds, several species of blackbirds, grackles, orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks. And though I enjoy observing and listening to all of them, I've a special connection with bobolinks.

My exposure to bobolinks first occurred on the farm when I was a boy. Our alfalfa fields were teeming with large flocks of bobolinks. In recalling my many walks along the hayfields on spring and summer evenings, the music of singing male bobolinks was everywhere. The incredibly joyful, sweet and bubbly warbling tunes of the bobolink are among the most unique and cheerful birdsongs of them all.

It seems that our hayfields in subsequent summers held less and less bobolinks. In reality, it was probably the case. Dairy farms were disappearing, and, thus, so was the need for hay and grasslands. What hayfields did exist were typically mowed too early and destroyed nests. As well, row crops and trees and shrubs began to replace bobolink havens.

It wasn't until years later, as a graduate student studying birds on the Great Plains of North Dakota, did I become reacquainted with the distinctly colored bobolink. Believe me, it was a welcome sight and sound—wetland and grassland complexes alive with the music and flurry of not only courting bobolinks, but other grassland nesting birds too.

No other blackbird, or bird for that matter, looks quite like male bobolinks do during the spring breeding season: all black below, straw-colored nape, and white rump and scapulars. In fact, no other North American bird is black below and white above. His song, sung in flight, culminates rapidly, crescendo-like. And once human ears hear a bobolink song, it is not likely to be forgotten.

Female and non-breeding bobolink are often confused with certain species of grassland sparrows, but their call-notes—males' as well—are similar to the "chuks" and "cheks" of blackbirds. Flight calls are distinct "pinks." Still, knowing that females and males occupy the same open-land habitats should eliminate most confusion.

Few other migrant birds fly the distances that bobolinks do annually. Bobolinks' summer range includes the entire northern half of the United States, as well as parts of Canadian prairies. Their winter range, however, is south of the equator. All totaled, a single bobolink might log a 12,500-mile round trip during its yearly migration. One extraordinary record reportedly showed that a nine year-old female made its trip every year. That's well over four times around the globe!

Interestingly, the bobolink, which is endeared by most people living in the northern hemisphere that are familiar with the species, is not so well liked in some places throughout South America where bobolinks spend the winter. There, the species is considered a pest by farmers growing rice. In fact, the species' scientific name, oryzivorus, is from the Latin words oryza, which means "rice", and vorare, which translates "to devour," and the reason why a common, albeit old, name for bobolinks persists yet today, especially in South America—rice bird.

And believe it or not, in Jamaica, where the bobolink is sometimes called "butter-bird," bobolinks, at least historically anyway, were captured and eaten by islanders. Bobolinks, fattened on a diet rice, are considered fine table fare, not to mention a means to control crop depredation by the birds.

Breeding Bird Survey data has unfortunately shown a steady decline in bobolink populations across their breeding range. The literature states that, "In addition to habitat loss, the factor most frequently cited for declines in bobolink populations is the more frequent mowing of hayfields." Indeed, these are interesting findings considering my experiences as a farm boy observing flocks of breeding and nesting bobolinks within our hayfields. Truth be known, farming practices have changed considerably since my carefree days on the farm, that is, small family farms are practically nonexistent, save for Amish farms where I grew up. However, wherever hayfields remain, so, too, can you find singing bobolinks. In fact, on many of the grassy fields that are annually hayed around my home southwest of Bemidji, bobolinks can still be found.

Despite decreasing bobolink populations, not all is gloom and doom. This beautiful species of bird (sometimes called "skunk bird" because of its black front and white backside) is the only songbird so uniquely plumaged and possessing so rich and diverse a song, can still be observed and listened to as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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