Tuesday, July 5, 2011


We've had an outbreak of Dickcissels in Ohio, but this is much better than, say, an outbreak of acne. Dickcissels are charming little cardinalids of the Great Plains and midwestern prairie regions, and Ohio gets very few some years. In boom years, we get lots. The proper term for such boom and bust cycles is cyclically irruptive.

As can be seen from this Dickcissel range map, courtesy the Birds of North America online series of monographs, Ohio lies on the far eastern cusp of this species' range. That map is actually a pretty good rendition of the distribution of the tallgrass prairie, most of which has been destroyed and of which the Dickcissel is a resident. Fortunately, this songbird has adapted and now does fairly well in a variety of agricultural situations and reverting meadows and fields.

Check its winter range. Dickcissels really get into the deep south, and the majority of the populations winters in a very small region in northern South America, primarily in Venezuela. There, they mass into roosts that can number into the millions and foraging birds radiate out into grain fields during the day. They can cause crop damage, and there have been instances of mass poisoning in an effort to rid fields of what are likely regarded as feathered locusts by some agriculturists.

This pastoral scene is classic Dickcissel breeding country here in Ohio. In fact, click the photo to enlarge and look carefully at 1:00 in that dead American plum and there one sits, singing boisterously. With no effort, I found about 12-15 singing males in Marion and Wyandot counties yesterday. I returned home to see a post on the Ohio Birds listserv from Rick Counts, who had been hunting Dickcissels in locales near to where I had been. Rick found about 60 territorial birds. Probably just about any suitable field in western Ohio could have Dickcissels this year.

Here's the fellow in the plum tree, singing its peculiar mechanical song. Curiously, to my ear the species that sounds most similar is an unrelated bird that often breeds in the same fields that Dickcissels do, the Sedge Wren. In fact, I found both species occupying a field yesterday and their rapid staccato melodies could easily be compared.

From the front, Dickcissels resemble little meadowlarks, what with their lemony breast with a black chevron splashed across the chest. Their bright, cheery songs add much charm to the meadows and fields, and at least in Ohio, this is the year to go hear them.



Randy Kreager said...

They are all over Ottawa County! We always see them at Vic Harder's farm that they made into prairie. But, they are in lots of other fields this year as well. In fact, I found a new batch of them while riding bike on July 4th! Thanks for the great article!

Wil said...

Very cool. I love these birds. Their songs carry for such long distances. There have been a few showing up in eastern WV this year as well.
Here is a recording that I made in central Maryland years ago:

Thanks for the post Jim,

Jim McCormac said...

You're welcome, Randy, and the Harder's certainly do their share on behalf of the environment!

Excellent recording, Wil, as I would expect from you!