With a youthful, bouncy song, the Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus, never fails to bring a smile to the observer. Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews poetically described the song of the Bobolink in the Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: “The Bobolink is indeed a great singer, but the latter part of his song is a species of musical fireworks….It is a mad, reckless, song-fantasia, an outbreak of of pent-up, irrepressible glee. The difficulty in either describing or putting upon paper such music is unsurmountable. One can follow the singer through the first few whistled bars and then, figuratively speaking he lets down the bars and stampedes. I have never been able to ‘sort out’ the tones as they passed at this break-neck speed.”

Unfortunately, this beautiful bird with such a magnificent song is in decline due to human practices, though their numbers are certainly high enough for action to be taken to reverse the decline. The Bobolink is known by various other names, such as “skunk blackbird” and “ricebird.” The name “ricebird” is shared by the Bobolink with various other species who also congregate on rice plantations.

A male Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) takes a break between energetic series of songs. Photo by Jacob Gorneau.

A male Bobolink takes a break between energetic series of songs. Photo by Jacob Gorneau.

The Bobolink migrates annually from central South America to northern North America to breed, which is about 10,000 kilometers, nearly 6,250 miles. Such a migration for a songbird weighing about one ounce is one of the longest in the Western Hemisphere. A nine-year-old banded female was was recorded to cumulatively travel 180,000 kilometers (about 111,847 miles), equal to 4.5 times around Earth at the equator!

Male Bobolinks have black undersides, a cream-colored nape, tertials and wing coverts edged in cream, a white rump, and white scapulars. Bobolinks are the only bird in North America with a black underside and a white backside. Females look much like a cream-colored sparrow and lack the distinctive markings of the male. Wintering male Bobolinks in central South America have a plumage much more modest in appearance and similar to that of the female. Bobolinks build a grass nest with up to seven eggs in each clutch. The eggs are pale blue or reddish brown with randomly distributed brown splotches. Bobolinks are polygamous, with more than one female mating with one male, similar to many other birds in the Icteridae family. And did you know that a group of Bobolinks is called a chain?

A male Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) prepares to land. Photo by Liam Wolff.

A male Bobolink prepares to land. Photo by Liam Wolff.

The Bobolink prefers open fields, prairies, and while migrating, marshes. Such places, especially open fields, are also ideal locations for agriculture, causing potential conflict between human use and Bobolink needs. In South America, Bobolinks are commonly found on rice plantations where they are often considered pests and are either caught to be sold as pets or killed. Keeping a wild bird as a pet is detrimental to both the quality of life for the bird as well as for populations of wintering Bobolinks. In the summer, Bobolinks migrate northward to North America, arriving in May or early June. Once they arrive on their breeding grounds, they build their nests, mate, and raise their young. With chicks fledging within two weeks, young are usually able to fly by late July.

It can be seen that the male and female Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) have drastically different plumages, with the male having a distinct black underside and white upper side, and the female looking much like a sparrow. Photo by Liam Wolff.

Male and female Bobolink have drastically different plumages, with the male having a distinct black underside and white upper side, and the female looking much like a sparrow. Photo by Liam Wolff.

Current agricultural practices allow farmers to grow more hay in one season through multiple harvests. While economically advantageous for farmers, the multiple harvests result in the destruction of Bobolink nests during the breeding season. This is considered the main factor in the species’ decline in New York. The decline is also attributed to the switch from timothy and clover hay to alfalfa. Other research suggests that the increase in abandoned farms (leading to a shift of fields back to forested habitat), has been a factor in the decline of Bobolinks. In some areas of northeastern North America, Bobolinks have experienced a cumulative 40% decline in recent decades. Surveys have shown that throughout their whole North American breeding range Bobolink numbers have declined by about 2% every year since 1966.

Fortunately, projects such as The Bobolink Project are working to find ways to help Bobolink populations. The Bobolink Project strives to find a compromise between farmers harvesting hay and Bobolinks’ breeding habits. Farmers who participate in the Bobolink Project wait until the new generation of Bobolinks are able to fly before harvesting, which is usually around mid- to late July. Through funding from the community, the Bobolink Project monetarily compensates farmers for their lost hay harvest. If there is extra money after compensating the farmers, the money is returned to the people who have funded the effort. I was very fortunate to talk with Professor Stephen Swallow, an integral part of the Bobolink Project:

The Bobolink Project has been extremely beneficial to the conservation of Bobolinks in Rhode Island and Vermont. Logo courtesy of the Bobolink Project.

The Bobolink Project has been extremely beneficial to the conservation of Bobolinks in Rhode Island and Vermont. Logo courtesy of the Bobolink Project.

What piqued your interest in grassland bird conservation?

Growing up I was in the Boy Scouts and I spent a lot of time hiking and doing nature-based recreation. That led me to going to college to study ecology, and being concerned with protecting the environmental qualities that are out there. So in general, it’s not so much grassland bird conservation, I am interested in conservation generally and environmental protection, and when it provides the people value.

Can any farmer within the range of grassland birds like the Bobolink participate in the Bobolink Project?

The Bobolink Project in 2013 was focused on parts of Rhode Island and parts of Vermont. So, anybody in those areas could participate in the Bobolink Project if we got adequate support from the general public to help pay for the cost that the farmers face when they decide to try to manage for grassland nesting birds. All those farmers we were in contact with at the time, we actually did this year manage to get enough funding from the public, particularly in Vermont, but shortly after we were settling those management plans with those farmers that were participating, we had other farmers getting in touch with us saying they’d be interested for the upcoming year. Hopefully this coming year we will raise more funds and will be able to support more farmers.”

How many farms have participated in the Bobolink Project to date?

In the original Bobolink Project, we had four farms [in Jamestown, Rhode Island]; that was 2007. In 2008 in Jamestown, Rhode Island, we had three farms, and then this past year, in 2013, we had three farms out of Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, only one farm in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and we’ve got eight farms in Vermont. In Rhode Island in 2013 the participating farms are managing forty acres for the birds in total. In Vermont, we are paying for a total of two-hundred acres, but several of the farms voluntarily added some additional acreage to their management for the birds.

Have ecological surveys been conducted on farms who have participated in the Bobolink Project?

Informally, yes, particularly in Vermont. The fields that we contracted for did have male Bobolinks defending territory during the breeding season. It’s very, very expensive to estimate how many nests actually were successful, so we know in general each of those males would have between one and three, or perhaps more, females inside their territory nesting, and those nests might each have four to seven eggs. So we can get a rough idea from knowing how many males were around how many offspring they were capable of having. In 2007 and 2008 we did have the funding to have a biologist actually go out  identify the actual physical territories of the males in Jamestown.

The Bobolink Project is a huge step towards environmental advocacy within communities. In what other ways is the Bobolink Project a pioneer?

We’re developing new ways to use economic incentives to help people realize that an increased financial contribution leads to an increase in conservation action, so the project grows with the individuals’ personal commitment. We’re not setting a fixed target of money to raise, but are rather setting up a system where people can buy in, and the more people who buy in, the more we can get done. If people donate a flat amount, we will carry it as far as we can. But what we are trying to do is connect what people pay with how much they get of the grassland nesting birds’ habitats. Ecosystem restoration is part of what we do, but a lot of what we are trying to do is to find better ways to help people and the economy be able to recognize the value of ecosystems, and recognize it financially.

How well-received has the Bobolink Project been in the farming industry?

Many farms have participated, but not all of them can fit the needs of the Bobolink Project. We ask for farmers to help us find ways to fit with their plans. I’d say that there’s a lot of interest from farms, and I think especially in Vermont, but also in some parts of Rhode Island. I’d say that they were pretty darn enthusiastic, even the ones who could not participate because it couldn’t fit the particular situation. They were often supportive in suggesting other farms that they thought would fit better with what we’re doing.

Besides assisting with the conservation of grassland birds and conveying a greater sense of community, what are some other advantageous impacts of the Bobolink Project?

There’s other wildlife that benefits, of course. Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and American Kesteral are just a few. If the Bobolink Project is successful it could encourage other farms to move toward maintenance of healthy hayfields, which could replace some of the production of corn that is used to feed cattle. That could have positive benefits for the water quality because hayfields tend to absorb nutrients more effectively and efficiently than cornfields do, and hayfields don’t tend to need as much fertilizer. So, there can be benefits to water quality in places like the Upper Champlain Valley. There can be benefits to small mammal populations, maintenance of pollinator habitats if the hayfields are kept, and increases/maintenance of other forms of biodiversity. Of course, there are also the scenic aspects as well, the aesthetic value of pastoral landscape.

Have you worked with Bobolinks in the field before?

When I was a college student back in 1979 I did have some time looking for Bobolinks out in the field in upstate New York. I was working on Oneida Lake for part of my summer near Syracuse.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in ecological conservation?

It’s not just about nature. It’s also about math and science more generally. I’m an economist, but even the ecologists I’m working with are using statistics and mathematical techniques to understand what their data mean, so they can identify patterns such as what seems to be a good habitat versus what’s not as good a habitat. I also recommend volunteering on a conservation project or with a local conservation organization. Read a lot, be curious, try to identify what a problem is, and try to think about how to solve problems. If there’s a shortage of conservation activity happening, well, is there something to about that to attract more supporters and get more benefits?

Is there anything else you would like to mention about the Bobolink Project?

It’s funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and without that funding, we wouldn’t have any activity in the area. We are hoping to continue after the research funding runs out. We’re looking for people who might be interested in supporting the Bobolink Project to continue as a long run program overall.  Certainly in 2014 we hope to fund another several  hundred acres in Vermont, at least, and then after that, we hope it continues as well, but that’s going to depend on whether more people come forward and are willing to help support us.

The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) is a grassland nesting bird with a more western distribution than the Bobolink but has similar problems nonetheless. Photo by Alexandra Forsythe.

The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) is another grassland inhabitant with a more midwestern distribution than the Bobolink but it faces similar problems nonetheless. Photo by Alexandra Forsythe.

The Dickcissel is another grassland bird that is being negatively impacted by human land use practices. Rather than wintering in central South America, the Dickcissel winters in northern South America, preferring habitats with thick grasses, such as hayfields and prairies. Though their population declines have not been as precipitous as those of Bobolinks, the Dickcissel is declining as well, along with other species of grassland birds such as the Savannah Sparrow and the meadowlarks.
Despite these facts, Bobolinks and Dickcissels are still numerous, giving us a chance to act. If you live in an area where Bobolinks, Dickcissels, or any other grassland nesting birds are present, talk to farmers about possible compromises to help support bird populations AND farmer livelihoods.
Here is a video I took this May of a Bobolink singing: