BIRD OF THE WEEK: June 30, 2017
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Spiza americana
POPULATION: 27 million
HABITAT: Open grasslands, including prairies or pastures, and overgrown weedy fields. Uses wetlands and marshes during migration
The male Dickcissel resembles a big sparrow or miniature meadowlark, with a black, V-shaped throat patch contrasting with its bright yellow breast. This bird is named for its loud, persistent song: “dick-dick-ciss-ciss-ciss.” Dickcissels are long-distance Neotropical migrants, spending their winters in the llanos (central plains) of Venezuela.
Like other grassland species, including Northern Bobwhite and Loggerhead Shrike, the Dickcissel has been impacted by habitat loss and pesticide use. Dickcissels also risk colliding with towers, turbines, and glass during their nocturnal migrations.
The Dickcissel is a notorious wanderer, appearing in large numbers on suitable breeding territory one year and totally absent the next. For example, in wet years Dickcissels will breed in the southern portion of their breeding range in Texas, but in drought years they keep moving north to nest in the Central Plains states.
On migration and during the winter, the Dickcissel is highly gregarious and forms large flocks, some so large that they may contain 10 to 30 percent of the global population. These large flocks can be very damaging to rice and sorghum crops, and farmers use noise-making strategies like cannons, bottle rockets, or banging pots and pans to scare flocks away from their fields. A few farmers deliberately poison Dickcissels during the winter, although conservation groups have made many efforts to work with farmers to find alternatives to poisoning.
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Dickcissels forage on the ground or by perching on stalks to pluck seeds. During the breeding season they are omnivorous, taking a variety of spiders, insects such as grasshoppers, and seeds, but during winter and on migration, they switch to a granivorous (grain-eating) diet.
Dickcissels are polygynous – an uncommon breeding system in birds, where one male mates with many females. A male Dickcissel will defend a territory that contains both suitable nesting and foraging areas, and may have up to six females nesting in his territory, although most attract only one or two. Males with territories containing the best nest sites attract more females.
Males continue to defend their territory while the female(s) that take up residence select nest sites, build the nests, then brood and raise the young. The nest, a bulky cup of weeds and grass stems, is built on or slightly above the ground, in dense vegetation or a small shrub or trees. The female incubates her clutch of 3 to 6 pale blue eggs for 12 to 13 days, then feeds the hatchlings a variety of insects until they are ready to leave the nest.
Although not listed as endangered or threatened at the federal level, the Dickcissel is a Partners in Flight priority grassland species, and is included on its Watch List. While its overall population is still large, the species has shown significant declines in many states.
ABC is working with landowners, agencies, and a variety of programs, including Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, to preserve habitat for Dickcissels. (See how the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture is helping to restore grasslands in Texas and Oklahoma.) Our new BirdScapes program, which aims to save breeding, wintering, and stopover habitat for migratory birds, will provide another boost for this species.
ABC and partners filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016, alleging insufficient federal regulation of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are toxic to birds, bees, and other wildlife. A 2013 study by ABC found that even tiny amounts of “neonics” are toxic to Dickcissels and other grassland bird species such as Bobolink, as well as to bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.
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