Somewhere in a field just north and west of here a bobolink sings. If I quiet my mind enough I can almost hear it, even though I’ve so far only heard recordings. Sometimes called rice bird, butter bird, skunk blackbird, or meadow-wink, the male bobolink sings a jubilant song that has frequently been likened to the robotic voice of R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Unique in many ways, the bobolink is one of only a few species that goes through a complete molt of its feathers twice each year. The male bobolink in its breeding plumage is a most striking bird! Yet through molting for the winter it comes to resemble the much drabber female.
Twice each year, bobolinks undertake one of the longest migrations of any songbird. They winter in central South America and spend their breeding season in the northern United States and parts of southern Canada. Originally a prairie-dwelling species of the Midwestern U.S., bobolinks adapted to breeding on agricultural land and were thus able to expand their summer range. Once killed by the thousands by rice farmers in the southeast U.S., these birds are now considered to be beneficial to American farmers due to their primarily insect-based diet during the breeding season. However, loss of farmland and changes in agricultural practices over the years have led to a steep decline in bobolink nesting habitat. Meanwhile, on their wintering grounds, a shift toward rice production has made the bobolink an enemy of South American farmers. Regrettably they are not protected there by law as they have been in the United States since the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. In the past bobolinks were also served as food in restaurants, and continue to be a delicacy in Jamaica, where they earned their “butter bird” nickname, a reference to the heavy fat content of the birds when they arrive there on stopovers during their long migration.
The bobolink has long been a nemesis bird of mine, along with a few other field-dwelling species. As one who rarely travels far to watch birds, I am restricted to what habitat is nearby. Unfortunately, appropriate field habitat is not plentiful in my usual birding grounds. Searching for field birds also typically involves a lot of driving around and pulling off on narrow road shoulders in an effort to catch glimpses of species that seem to thrive on playing hide-and-seek in the shelter of their grassy living quarters. This is not my preferred method of birding. That said, there have been recent reports of bobolinks northwest of here, and I may set out this weekend once again to find this elusive and intriguing bird.