The Plight of the Bobolink

by Bruce MacPherson

Robert of Lincoln

Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gaily drest,
Wearing a bright black wedding coat;
White are his shoulders and white his crest.
Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Look, what a nice new coat is mine,
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

                     - William Cullen Bryant


Is there any other bird so celebrated in poetry as the Bobolink? Bryant, Emily Dickinson, and many others have portrayed the wonder of Bobolinks in their poetry. Bobolinks are celebrated in music, too. In fact, an a capella singing group at Middlebury College calls itself the Bobolinks. Would anyone willingly listen to a singing group that called themselves the Middlebury Grackles. Of course not.

Bryant’s poem (and there is much more) describes Bobolinks perfectly. Bobolinks are the only North American bird that is white on the back and black underneath like a “tuxedo worn backwards”. That creamy, yellowish-white nape is unmistakable, as Bryant points out. Of course, this distinctive plumage applies only to breeding males. Females and non-breeding males are drab and buffy with stripes on the face, back, and rump, blending perfectly into their grassy habitat. Unusual among songbirds, Bobolinks undergo two complete molts each year-one molt on the breeding grounds and another on their wintering grounds. After this second molt, the males are rather drab, but the yellowish tint to their feathers rapidly wears off to reveal the stunning breeding plumage for which they are best known.

And how about that ebullient song. In spring and early summer, the Bobolink’s song rings out through the countryside. Described as “a bubbly delirium of ecstatic music” or sometimes as an imitation of the loveable Star Wars robot R2D2, song alone marks the Bobolink as a bird of distinction. In the Northeast the song of the Bobolink is as characteristic of summer as the tinkle of the bell announcing the arrival of the ice cream truck.

During breeding season Bobolinks are widespread in North America, ranging from the prairies of the Midwest to the hayfields and pastures of the northeastern United States and southern Canada. Here they build their nests on the ground, fledge their young, and molt their feathers. After a visit that seems too short, Bobolinks depart in late summer and early fall for their wintering grounds in the grasslands of Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia with only a stop or two along the way.

Although Bobolinks are still fairly common birds, the population has steadily declined for many years. Habitat for Bobolinks was optimal when the United States was predominantly rural and the land was cleared for farming. As agriculture declined and hayfields and meadows reverted to forest, breeding habitat for Bobolinks was lost. Furthermore, intensive hay cutting during the breeding season destroys many Bobolink nests and fledglings each year. Preservation of open grasslands and providing incentives for farmers to delay hay cutting until after the breeding season is over would help to stabilize the population of these iconic birds of summer.

All is not well for Bobolinks wintering in the southern hemisphere either. Huge flocks of Bobolinks forage in the rice fields of South and Central America (the Latin name for Bobolinks, Dolichonyx oryzivorous, means “long-clawed rice-eater”), where they are harassed by angry farmers.  Likewise, the unregulated use of pesticides in the southern hemisphere poses an additional threat to the dwindling Bobolink population.

What to do? The first step in developing a conservation plan is to learn more about the relative threats to Bobolink populations throughout their range. In this regard an investigator from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, Dr. Rosalind Renfrew, has done seminal work, revealing the secrets of Bobolink behavior throughout their annual cycle. Dr. Renfrew’s thoughts on the plight of the Bobolink are recounted in the interview with her that follows this article.