by Cory Davis
It’s pronounced “bob uh link.” Although, you could use one of its several other names including skunk blackbird, ricebird or reedbird. Their genus, Dolichonyx, means “long claw” and the species name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating.” It does have relatively long claws for a songbird, which are used for grasping reeds and grasses. Of course, it’s also known as the bird in the backwards tuxedo with the golden top hat!
Bobolinks are actually members of the Blackbird family, Icteridae, though they are smaller than many of their cousins. Their bill is also closer to a finch bill, for eating the grass seeds and insects upon which they feed. In the breeding season, males are black with white wing patches and white down their backs and rump. The back of their heads are a buffy yellow that is so clearly delineated it looks like they’re wearing a bike helmet. The females, and non-breeding season males, look almost sparrow-like with a brown and buffy streaked back and distinctive dark stripes on their crown and eye-line. Their plumage allows them to blend in with the grasses and reeds that they build their nests under.
Bobolinks arrive in Montana in mid-May and leave sometime in August. Males sing while flying low over the grasses of their territory to attract a mate. Technically, Bobolinks are polygynous with a handful of males setting up territories with multiple females. However, they were one of the first species where we learned that female songbirds sometimes have something going on the side. Consequently, the eggs in a single nest often may be from multiple fathers.
Bobolinks almost hold the record for the longest songbird migration. Their annual 12,500 mile round trip vacation to grasslands in south central South America (or maybe here in the summer is their vacation?) is only surpassed by the Cliff Swallow. To assist them on their long journey, they have iron oxide in the bristles of their nasal passages that allow them to orient themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field. They will stop in grain fields to re-energize along the way and are often considered pests by farmers. They go through a complete molt twice a year, which is rare for songbirds. This ensures their feathers are fresh and strong for their long migration.
According to the Birds of Montana, Bobolinks are uncommon to fairly common statewide in the breeding season, including being present here in the Flathead Valley. How many have you seen? Until last year I had never seen one here. Then I found one in downtown Whitefish in a postage stamp-sized lot in the middle of a subdivision singing on the one old post standing above the tall grass. How can such a conspicuous bird with a distinctive song be so difficult to find?
They have been reasonably adaptive when it comes to cohabitating with their two-legged invaders. Bobolinks prefer taller grasses and mixed prairie, but they will nest in hayfields and wet meadows which have increased with agriculture and clearing of forests. They build cup nests on the ground, which are vulnerable to modern farming equipment. Consequently, like many grassland species in Montana, Bobolinks have declined considerably in the last 50 years. Breeding Bird Survey results indicate an annual decline of 2.3% from 1966-2010. This decline has been partially blamed on more intensive farming practices that cut hay more frequently and earlier than in the past. Farmers formerly cut in late July or August, which allowed sufficient time for the young to fledge from their nests. In a trial conservation effort in Vermont, the public donated $64,000 to 10 landowners to compensate the farmers for cutting later in the year.
Each one is a Bobo-link in a chain, which is actually the name used for a group of bobolinks. They are mentioned in many poems and are immortalized in the poem “Robert of Lincoln” by William Cullen Bryant which begins:
Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.