What's Wild?: Bobolink: The bird that looks like a skunk

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118409391216944.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of http://physics.clarku.edu‘, ‘Bobolink‘);

Looking like a tiny floating skunk, the bobolink is our only songbird that is solid black in front and largely white or whitish at the back. The pattern of feathers on the male birds suggests a dress suit on backward. Bobolinks are the size of a small robin or large sparrow. The females are the same as males in size and shape, but the feathers are a rich buff yellow, with streaks on the back and crown.

Bobolinks like open spaces, and that’s another clue to help answer the question, “What’s that bird that looks like this or sings in open fields?”

It isn’t easy to identify a small bird perching on a fence when driving. So, slow down. Recently we were asked if we knew what bird it is that sits on a fence, is black and has a white stripe “all down its body.” The size was reported to be smaller than a robin. Hmm.

Having never seen a bobolink next to a robin for a size comparison, I was momentarily stumped, because they don’t live in the same places. To find these birds, we should go for a walk on some original or restored prairie land, not-yet-mowed hayfields, or pastures. Bobolinks are not tree nesting birds. They may perch on fence posts or plant stems about the same height as fence posts.

Our wild birds don’t always pose the way they are depicted in the field guides. Therefore, what appears to be a white stripe can turn out to be several sections of white and yellow, which are found on the bobolink’s back side.

In fall, in migration, they may be found in treeless marshes, and in that setting, these birds can easily pass as “some kind of sparrow.” In late summer flocks, the females and juveniles look alike in that rich, buff yellow with streaks.

These birds are known to have only one brood per year. If their hayfields are mowed early in season, when bobolink eggs or young are still in the nests, then breeding for that summer is lost.

The singing of the bobolinks is a June birdsong, and this is not to be missed. They’re singing now. The songs are often heard when the bird descends onto vegetation, and are delivered with quivering notes, ecstatic and bubbling.

The flight song is a series of joyous, bubbling, tumbling, gurgling phrases with each note on a different pitch. Another source describes the voice as: song given in flight a cheerful, bubbling, jangling warble with short notes on widely different pitches, ending faster, fuller and higher.

Some field guides state that the bird “has too much to say.” So, choose a fair summer-like day with gentle breezes and explore our wide-open grasslands. Listen to the talkative bobolinks.

Or, how about taking a break from all that cicada noise in your neighborhood and visiting an open, treeless area? You might be rewarded by seeing and hearing meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, dicksissels, and those delicate little skunks, the bobolinks.

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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