11 min read

I Used To See These Cheerful Birds Everywhere. Now They're Disappearing.

<p>Kelly Colgan Azar / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/puttefin/8839183579/" target="_blank">Flickr</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/" target="_blank">CC BY-ND 2.0</a>) </p>

The bobolink is, for me and many others (albeit a minority of the population overall), one of those creatures who greatly enriches life and living. It is a small songbird who nests in fields, meadows, prairies, and grasslands across temperate North America, from Montana to the Atlantic coast, avoiding more arid regions in favor of wetter meadows, even beaver meadows in boreal forest.

The male in breeding plumage is velvety-black, but with a buff-yellow patch on the back of the neck, broad white bands on either side of the back, and an all-white lower back. They are, when seen perched beneath a brightly sunny sky or flying low across a meadow, surprisingly pretty birds. Bobolinks have an enthusiastic song of cheerfully bubbling notes, sung either from an exposed perch, such as a small shrub, fence, or telephone wire, or while the bird is in flight: wings fluttering, combining song with a visual display, the buff patch on the back of the neck fluffed up and conspicuous.

Bobolinks were abundant in my childhood, but here in Ontario, they have declined by more than three quarters since 1970. They are not yet considered endangered, and have been officially listed as threatened. And, they are not alone among field nesting birds in their precipitous decline. It would have been unthinkable in my youth to drive all day in farm country and not see eastern meadowlarks, Savannah sparrows, vesper sparrows, and kestrels. But now, they are gone - not completely, not endangered - but, most of the time, they are altogether absent from where I once saw so many.

It is estimated that there are as many as 400,000 breeding pairs of bobolinks in Ontario, mostly in a band across the province, to the north of where I live. It has been pointed out by the farming community that where they seem to be doing well is where most beef and calf production occurs. Thus, beef farmers can take credit for helping the species survive.

One of the causes of mortality could be changes in when hay and other crops are cut. I well recall a large field near my home that grew alfalfa, and each time I went there in May and June, I enjoyed the cheerfully singing bobolinks flying over their respective territories, singing with apparent, and infectious, joy. Looking down, I could sometimes see the females, who are a golden-buff color: the color of dead grass and weeds.

One afternoon, I arrived to find not a single bird - not one - where there had been dozens of pairs a few days earlier (and, hidden from my view in the alfalfa, several times that number of eggs and babies). The alfalfa had been harvested.

Farmers plant crops like hay and alfalfa to earn their livings, and, not incidentally, to feed us, but not to accommodate bobolinks.

An early memory of mine was a visit with my parents and other adults to farms in extreme southern Ontario. This was in 1958 and the farms grew several kinds of millet, which was sold to the pet industry to be marketed as food for caged budgies, canaries, and other seed-eating captive birds. The market demanded that the seed heads be intact. Swirling above the crops and descending into them in the thousands were masses of birds, mostly bobolinks. This was in the fall, and the males had molted and changed color to that golden-buff of the female, but with a yellow wash on the belly. There were grackles and cowbirds, as well, and other species, but mostly bobolinks. And, all over, propane "cannons" were booming, and men with shotguns were walking around, doing all they could to discourage the birds from eating the millet. Scarecrows were everywhere.

We were there to catch and band the birds, and some we caught were so fat that there was danger that their skins were taut enough to split if handled without great care. They need that fat because they have one of the longest migrations of any American songbird, spending their winters in Patagonia, from southern Brazil south well into Argentina.

And, on the way, they become the bane of farmers, especially rice farmers, who call them "rice birds." Their scientific name means "rice eater." Millions have been shot in the rice fields of Louisiana and Texas in a vast version of what I saw in the millet fields of Oxford County, Ontario nearly 60 years ago. That was when I first wondered how to make farmers not hate bobolinks.

Not all do; not by a long shot. And, the challenge to the conservationist is to find ways to cooperate with the farming community in protecting such species, ideally before they become so rare. One such endeavor, locally, involves a less-well-known songbird: the loggerhead shrike. Also a species common in my childhood, it is officially now on Ontario's endangered species list. Near me, there is a location where cows free-range in a mixture of open fields and small clusters of trees and shrubs and tiny patches of what is technically called prairie, and flat surfaces of exposed bedrock known as alvars. By cooperating with the farmers and respecting their property rights, in combination with an aggressive captive-breeding and release program, the loggerhead shrike is making a comeback (even though we are not fully aware of why they went into decline in the first place).

There has been huge emphasis on protecting trees and forests, most of which have been eliminated from large segments of southwestern Ontario. But, too little attention has been paid to protecting grasslands. As demonstrated by the decline in bobolinks, meadowlarks, and other field birds, a once-abundant species can become rare very quickly. It is neither fair nor practical to expect farmers to carry the burden of providing habitat - and yet, if not managed, grasslands in this region slowly convert to woodland.

And, we have to remember that other factors are in play. There has been no less of a decline, for example, in insect populations, and that is pretty well the exclusive food of field birds when they feed their young. Changes on wintering grounds can have effects, too, far beyond the influence of local conservation initiatives.

It is fall. I plan to go to some fields an hour's drive from here this weekend, and maybe see some of the golden-colored winter-plumage bobolinks as they migrate through. They have a distinctive "chink" call note this time of year that makes them easy to find ... if, of course, there are any to be found. Probably yes, but as for the future, I am not so certain.