The Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), a member of the Blackbird family (Icteridae), is a champion among North American songbirds with an annual flight of approximately 20,000 km round-trip, one of the longest migrations in the western hemisphere. With a breeding range covering open areas of the northern US and southern Canada, the Bobolink returns from its wintering grounds in the grasslands of southwestern Brazil, Paraguay, and Northern Argentina to appear here in southern Manitoba about the second to third week of May.
Upon arrival, the male Bobolink is visually striking in a jet black coat with bright white shoulders and rump and a straw-colored patch on the back of his head. He utters his unique, uplifting, bubbly flight song of metallic notes, and whistles while fluttering up over the fields with rapid, shallow wingbeats in a distinctive, helicopter-like display.
In contrast, the female Bobolink is sometimes mistaken for a large sparrow, with her plain front, dark head stripes, patterned wings and pale, overall golden-buff colouring. Bobolinks formerly nested in tall and mixed grass prairies, but now utilize hay and alfalfa fields, meadows, and lush pastures in agricultural regions. The typical nest, built by the female, is very well-hidden on the ground amongst dense grass, and contains 4-7 eggs.
The nestlings are fed by both parents and leave the nest in about 14 days, often before gaining flight ability. Feeding primarily on insects during the summer, Bobolinks also consume seeds of weeds, grasses and grains, particularly during migration and on their South American wintering grounds where they sometimes invite persecution with damage to local rice crops.
As with many ground-nesting grassland species, habitat loss, coupled with nest-destroying mowing and haying practices (sadly observed first-hand during surveying with the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas) have impacted the Bobolink, which is now federally designated as “threatened” by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Fortunately, the Bobolink can still be found in suitable habitat in southern Manitoba, and continues to inspire us with its exuberant, uplifting song, and unique attributes deserving of our admiration and respect.
For those interested in a the chance to spot the bobolink and other songbirds at FortWhyte Alive, Birding and Breakfast runs every Wednesday and Friday morning during the month of May. Our experienced birding guides lead a sunrise hike to observe spring migrants. After your hike, join Chef Kelly in the Buffalo Stone Cafe for a delicious breakfast. Bring your binoculars and come prepared for spring weather - we will be out on the trail rain or shine! Guided hikes depart at 7am. Visit www.fortwhyte.org/birding or call (204) 989-8355 for more information and to register.