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Bobolink

Dolichonyx oryzivorus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Perched on a grass stem or displaying in flight over a field, breeding male Bobolinks are striking. No other North American bird has a white back and black underparts (some have described this look as wearing a tuxedo backwards). Added to this are the male’s rich, straw-colored patch on the head and his bubbling, virtuosic song. As summer ends he molts into a buff and brown female-like plumage. Though they’re still fairly common in grasslands, Bobolink numbers are declining.

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Keys to identification Help

Blackbirds
Blackbirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Bobolinks are small songbirds with large, somewhat flat heads, short necks, and short tails. They are related to blackbirds and orioles, and they have a similar shaped, sharply pointed bill.

  • Color Pattern

    Breeding male Bobolinks are mostly black with a white back and rump, and a rich buffy nape. Females and nonbreeding males are warm buffy brown, streaked with dark brown on the back and flanks. They have bold brown stripes on the crown but are unstreaked on the nape of the neck. The bill is pinkish.

  • Behavior

    In spring, male Bobolinks give conspicuous display flights low over grasslands, fluttering their wings while singing. At other times, Bobolinks stay hidden in tall grasses or brush, clinging to seed heads or foraging on the ground amid the stems. They often migrate in large flocks.

  • Habitat

    Bobolinks are birds of tall grasslands, uncut pastures, overgrown fields and meadows, and the continent’s remaining prairies. While molting and on migration, look for them in marshes and in agricultural fields, particularly rice fields.

Range Map Help

Bobolink Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding male

    Bobolink

    Breeding male
    • Breeding male's mostly jet-black plumage contrasts with white rump and shoulder patches
    • Pale yellow/off-white patch at back of head
    • Long legs
    • Stout, black bill
    • © Kurt Kirchmeier, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2012
  • Female

    Bobolink

    Female
    • Pale golden-buff overall with patterned wings
    • Stout, pale gray/pink bill
    • Dark stripes on head with pale central crown stripe
    • Plain, unmarked breast and belly
    • © Kelly Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, June 2011
  • Breeding male

    Bobolink

    Breeding male
    • Large, white rump and shoulder patches contrast with black body
    • Pale yellow patch at back of head
    • Stout, pointed black bill
    • Sharply-pointed tips on tail-feathers
    • © Jim McCree, Bangor, Maine, May 2011
  • Juvenile

    Bobolink

    Juvenile
    • Juvenile similar to adult female but with richer golden/buffy color throughout
    • Plain, unmarked breast/belly
    • Striped head
    • Stout, pointed bill
    • © Guy Lichter, Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba, Canada, July 2012

Similar Species

  • Breeding male

    Lark Bunting

    Breeding male
    • Solid black overall
    • Only white patches are on wings
    • Paler, heavier bill
    • Wings shorter and more rounded than Bobolink
    • © Terry and Joanne Johnson, South Dakota, May 2012
  • Female

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Female
    • Similar to female/juvenile Bobolink but larger and heavier-bodied
    • Dense, dark streaking on breast and belly
    • Bill longer and more pointed
    • © Kelly Azar, Pennsylvania, December 2010
  •  

    Grasshopper Sparrow

     
    • Overall color and striped crown similar to female/juvenile Bobolink, but much smaller overall
    • Large head with compact body
    • Short tail
    • Thin bill
    • © Ken Schneider, Miramar, Florida, February 2011

Similar Species

    Breeding male Lark Buntings have large white patches on the wing but not on the back or rump. Female Red-winged Blackbirds are larger than Bobolinks, with longer bills. They have much darker, heavier streaking all over, particularly on the breast and belly. Grassland sparrows such as the Grasshopper Sparrow are a similar color but smaller than female and nonbreeding Bobolinks. The sparrows tend to have more complicated head patterns, with streaks on the back of the neck instead of the Bobolink’s smooth, buffy head with a brown stripe on the crown and another behind the eye.

Backyard Tips

If there’s breeding habitat of grassy pasture or overgrown fields near your home, Bobolinks may visit open yards to forage on seed-bearing weeds.

Find This Bird

It’s easiest to find Bobolinks if you look for males giving their display flights during spring and early summer. In grassy or overgrown fields and pastures, listen for a long, burbling song punctuated with sharp metallic notes. The male Bobolink often sings this song while flying in a peculiar helicopter-like pattern, moving slowly with his wings fluttering rapidly. Outside of the breeding season, look for these long-distance migrants in rice fields and listen for their sharp pink call notes.

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