Bird Watcher's General Store

Bobolinks - 07/02/04


Dear Bird Folks:

Every morning I hear Bobolinks calling in my yard. Their distinctive two note whistle is my favorite part of the summer. Could you please tell me something about Bobolinks?

-Janet, Brewster

Thanks Janet,

Thanks so much for asking about Bobolinks. I've been hoping someone would ask about them. A few weeks ago I heard about a new conservation area that the town of Duxbury has just purchased. It used to be one of the largest dairy farms in southeastern Massachusetts. In Duxbury? Who knew that hidden amongst those trophy homes was a huge dairy farm? No wonder so many of the houses have their windows closed when the wind is blowing from that direction.

Being the nosy person that I am, I hopped in the car and drove right over to Duxbury to check out this new property. The farm was easy to find and even though it's heavily guarded by cows, it is a great place to explore. I spent hours walking through fields of wildflowers and butterflies. But for me, the best part was that the sky was full of Bobolinks. They were everywhere, flashing over the fields and singing nonstop.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Cape Cod, including Brewster, has very few Bobolinks. They are a rare nester here. That is why I was so thrilled to discover this place in Duxbury. And Duxbury, no matter what they may tell you, is not part of Cape Cod. So, if Bobolinks are rare, how is that you are hearing them call every morning in your yard in Brewster? Suddenly I have the feeling that you don't really have Bobolinks. Wait, you said your bird had a "two note call". Oh no. Janet, did you mean to ask me about 'bobwhites', but I wrote about Bobolinks instead? You did, didn't you? I can see how you get mixed up, after all, both birds have the same first name. That's fine, but I'm too deep into this Bobolink thing to turn back now. Let's pretend you really wanted to know about Bobolinks and we can save Bobwhites for some other time.

The Bobolink has great name recognition. Most people are familiar with the name, but aren't sure if it's a bird, an insect or an attachment to a cell phone. They are in the blackbird family and are fairly small, about the size of a cowbird. The breeding plumage male Bobolink is an unmistakably handsome, well marked bird. He has a solid black front, with white on the back and a signature buff-yellow patch on the nape of the neck. His song, that can be heard all over his breeding grounds, is also distinctive. Unlike the clean, clear, two note whistle of the bobwhite, the Bobolink's song is a crazy jumble of assorted notes. It's like hearing jazz on the wing, only a lot less annoying. The first time you hear the song of a Bobolink you'd swear he is making it up as he goes along, but a few minutes later the bird repeats his song, seemingly word for word, note for note.

Bobolinks are birds of open hay fields and farmland. Since open hay fields and farmland are rare on Cape Cod, we have very few nesting Bobolinks. That is too bad for us, because Bobolinks are very interesting birds. Besides being handsome and having a unique song, a Bobolink's domestic life is like something you'd see on Jerry Springer. A male Bobolink often has more than one mate, sometimes as many as three or four. Whoa, four mates! Good luck to him. Some males have so many kids that neighboring, unattached Bobolinks stop by to help feed the young birds. See, I told you it was like Jerry Springer.

Sadly, the Bobolink population is declining. Over the years their hay fields have become strip malls and golf courses. And what few hay fields remain are now harvested twice a year. Since Bobolinks nest on the ground, hidden in the grass, early hay harvesting often results in Bobolink flavored hay bails.

Sorry that I didn't write about bobwhites Janet, but it really wasn't my fault. You are the one who put the Bobolink thought into my head. Still, Bobolinks are a bird that is well worth reading about. Their energetic flight displays, one-of-kind song and occasional appearance on Jerry Springer makes them true legends of rural America.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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