Living Bird Magazine
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Icteridae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Tordo Arrocero (Spanish)
- Goglu des prés (French)
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.
- Cool Facts
- The Bobolink is one of the world’s most impressive songbird migrants, traveling some 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) to and from southern South America every year. Throughout its lifetime, it may travel the equivalent of 4 or 5 times around the circumference of the earth.
- The species name of the Bobolink, oryzivorus means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for rice and other grains, especially during migration and in winter.
- A migrating Bobolink can orient itself with the earth’s magnetic field, thanks to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve. Bobolinks also use the starry night sky to guide their travels.
- Bobolink molt twice a year, completely changing all their feathers on both the breeding and wintering grounds. When the male grows new feathers on the wintering grounds they all have yellowish tips, so he still looks like a nonbreeding bird. Eventually the pale tips wear off to reveal his striking black-and-white breeding colors.
- Normally a daylight forager, the Bobolink sometimes feeds after dark on bright nights during migration, to build fat reserves for its long flight over the Gulf of Mexico.
- Bobolinks are related to blackbirds, which are often polygynous, meaning that males may have several mates per breeding season. Bobolinks are polygynous, too—but they’re also often polyandrous: each clutch of eggs laid by a single female may have multiple fathers.
- The oldest Bobolink on record was a female known to be at least 9 years old.
- The Bobolink was immortalized by nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant, in a poem titled Robert of Lincoln. The poem recounts the events of “Bob-o-‘Link’s” nesting season, describing the male’s flashy coat and song, the female’s modest attire and subdued voice, and the six purple-flecked eggs that hatch into nestlings.