Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Bobolink
Nature Bulletin No. 496-A   June 2, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Most of our songbirds nest and find their food in woodlands, along woodland borders, or in old orchards. Some, like the robins, house wrens, martins and bluebirds, usually prefer to live near human habitations -- even in villages and cities. Others, notably the redwing blackbird, are found only around marshes and swampy places. But there is a small group of songbirds which are seen and heard only in open country: prairies, meadows, hayfields and abandoned farm lands. In addition to some native sparrows, the horned lark, the killdeer and the familiar meadow larks, this group includes that happy-go-lucky "harlequin of the meadows": the Bobolink.

In spring the male bobolink cannot be mistaken for any other bird. Like the meadow lark and the orioles, he is a member of the blackbird family. His underparts are black. The back of his head and neck, however, is buff colored and there are conspicuous white patches on his shoulders and rump, so that he seems to be wearing "a full dress suit put on backwards."

The bobolink's courtship song is an indescribable bubbling melody that tumbles out faster and faster, pitched higher and higher, with short variable notes among which "bobolink" can be distinctly heard. It is often given during flight; also when perched on a bush or clinging to the top of a tall weed; but never too close to his mate's nest. That harum- scarum rollicking music baffles the interpreters and imitators of bird calls although Henry Thoreau caught the spirit of it when he wrote: "This flashing, tinkling meteor bursts through the expectant meadow air, leaving a train of tinkling notes behind."

The female bobolink, a demure olive-green bird with buffy underparts and stripes on her back and head, looks like a large sparrow. Her nest is built on the ground in a heavy stand of tall grass, weeds, clover or similar vegetation, and wonderfully concealed although not roofed over like that of a meadow lark. The parents never fly directly to it or from it. They walk. From 4 to 7 bluish-gray or reddish-brown eggs are camouflaged by being heavily spotted.

Until the young are ready to fly, a family of bobolinks consumes vast numbers of cutworms, grasshoppers, weevils and other injurious insects. Later, weed and grass seeds, or grain, are added to their diet. By that time the male looks like a different bird: he has molted and wears plumage very much like that of the female and their young. His call, if any, is merely a metallic "pink".

During the summer, bobolinks gather first in small flocks and by the end of August have begun a leisurely migration to their winter homes which may be as far south of the equator as Paraguay or Argentina. Some flocks may consist of 2000 or more birds and, like robins, meadow larks, orioles and blackbirds, they migrate mostly in daytime rather than at night as most songbirds do. There was a time when hundreds of thousands of bobolinks, called "rice birds ", were slaughtered annually and sold in markets because of the damage they did in the rice fields so extensive then in our southern states. Since the passage of the Federal Migratory Bird Law in 1913, they have been protected.

Our next bulletin will be issued on September 6. Enjoy your summer.

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