Diggings logo

WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.


by John Stuart

In May or June, while in the Cusick flats or on the grasslands of the Kalispel reservation, you may hear what sounds like a piccolo player on a pogo stick. Or maybe the sound of many people clinking wineglasses together. One attempt at describing this song a hundred years ago arrived at this alliterative rendition: oh, geezeler, geezeler, gilipity, onkeler, onkeler, oo.

You may assume it is a bird you are hearing, but the song is of such rare quality that it is almost impossible to imitate, and is unlike any other birdsong, certainly in our area. This effervescent yodeling is the spring song of the male bobolink. One will usually hear the bobolink before seeing it. The song is given by the male bird while flying over the grasslands and can be heard easily from over 1/4 mile away, so it can take a while to actually catch sight of the source of this little blessing on the human ear. I certainly never tire of hearing it.

Bobolinks are birds of moist grasslands. The nesting birds in our area are at the very western part of their range, which extends northward into the prairie parts of Canada and eastward to southeastern Canada and northeastern U.S. The fall migration moves the birds through the southeastern U.S. and wintering birds can be found from Caribbean islands to southern Brazil and Paraguay. Birds going this far south will have a roundtrip of over 12,000 miles.

The female bird has typical, dark/light camouflage coloring and looks similar to many darkly striped sparrows or a lighter version of the female red-winged blackbird. The male is mostly black with a white rump and white scapulars, the feathers where the wings join the body. The most obvious color of the male, however, is the light yellow patch that covers the nape, or back half of his head.

The bobolink is a member of the icteridae, a family of bird species that includes the blackbirds, cowbird, grackles, meadowlarks and orioles. It’s body shape and size are very similar to the blackbirds’.

On the nesting grounds, and since spring is bursting with insect life, these birds live mostly on insects and feed the same to their young. Later in the summer and in migration, as more plants are ripe with the summer’s seeds, bobolinks will switch to eating more seeds than insects. Their nest is hidden on the ground in a clump of grass invisible from above. Bobolinks summer on grasslands over a large area of North America but populations are much less dense than in pre-agriculture times. Hay fields that are cut before August 1 usually discourage bobolinks from taking up residence. Unmanaged grasslands are the bobolinks’ ancestral nesting grounds.

A century ago rice was a major farm crop in the southeast U.S. In the fall, before the rice was harvested, millions of the icteridae, as well as other kinds of birds would descend on these fields to fatten up for migration farther southward. At that time, songbirds were not protected and many shotguns were heard in the fall bringing down the “reed-birds” or “rice-birds.” The birds were not just seen as vermin, but were collected as food and sold as a meat commodity. A South Carolina game warden reported in 1912, over 720,000 “rice-birds” were sold at markets. In 1913, when the Federal Migratory Bird Act was signed into law, protecting many species, the Bobolink was left off the protected list. It was still considered, at that time, an agricultural pest. With the bobolink now protected, “reed-bird on toast” is no longer a common dish.

<----previous article...Diggings April 2003...next article---->