Dickcissel on Bluestem for Mother’s Day

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), the bird perching on the stems, Flying Hat Ranch, north Erath County, Texas, May 8, 2011 (see photograph below for closeup).

Closeup of Dickcissel on Big Bluestem, Flying Hat Ranch, May 8, 2011.

This morning I drove over to the Pecan Tree Pasture to check on the spring growth of grasses.

The Big Bluestem erupts into the old clumps of Bluestem from last season.  I heard a bird, a familiar call, that I vowed I would photograph and identify.  I walked fifty yards into the field and looked in the direction of the call.  I saw nothing.  Looking at several Bluestem clumps, I finally spied the bird and fixed it with the sound.  (If I had had my wits about me, I would have recorded the sound.)  The sound was a rendition of its name (I found out later), dick-ciss-ciss-ciss.

I focused the camera on the bird and it looked like a meadow lark, but smaller, yet yellow.  I took several shots and walked closer each time.  A sudden movement way across the pasture near the Hall’s place caught my attention.  A deer bounded through the high grass, gracefully jumped the fence and disappeared into the Grove.  I was pleased and I’m sure the deer was also that grass and trees provided foliage and food.  That was the first deer I’ve seen on the property in months.

Returning to the ranch house, I got down the Peterson and Audubon field guides to identify the bird I saw.

It is a Dickcissel (Spiza americana) male.  The species was on the 2005 Audubon Watchlist, but it has since been taken off.  The Dickcissel used to inhabit the eastern coastal states, but it now resides in the Midwest this time of year.  It had been placed on the Watchlist because in Venezuela its feeding habits damaged crops.

The major threat to Dickcissel comes from its wintering grounds in Venezuela. Because of the species’ propensity for gathering in enormous flocks and feeding on cultivated plants such as rice and sorghum, it can be a serious agricultural pest for Venezuelan farmers, who have sometimes taken to trying to poison flocks. Dickcissel flocks in Venezuela can number over a million birds, meaning that the wintering population can become highly concentrated at certain favored roosting sites. A single “successful” poisoning event of a large flock of roosting birds could significantly reduce the world population of Dickcissel.

On its North American breeding grounds, Dickcissel faces several additional threats: cowbird parasitism, the destruction of nests and nestlings by mowing machines, and loss of habitat due to changing agricultural practices and succession [1].

I have neither mowed nor shredded the field for six years.  In 2007, I ran twenty-seven Angus stocker calves in the field, but did not let them overgraze the pasture.   Other than Hija, Star, Lilly and Fanny, no livestock have been placed in the field since 2007.  In 2004 and 2010, I reseeded the field in native grasses.

I did not make a count of how many Dickcissels I saw or heard.  A very rough estimate is about 10-12 within the western half of the 35 acre field.

Of the Dickcissels nesting habits, the female lays 4 or 5 pale blue eggs in a cup of stems and grass set on or near the ground, often in alfalfa and clover fields [2].

Happy Mother’s Day, Ms. Dickcissel!  My field is your home — our world together.



1.  http://audubon2.org/watchlist/viewSpecies.jsp?id=72

2.  The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Eastern Region.  Also references to Peterson’s field guide.

The ecology of the Dickcissel as stated in the Audubon Watchlist link above is as follows (for Wild Bill and others):

Dickcissel nests in grasslands, meadows, savanna, and hay fields. Its nest is a bulky, loose cup of woven grass and leaves, usually placed in a grassy field. Males arrive at breeding territories about a week before females, and may have more than one mate. Females are responsible for nest building and incubation, usually of a clutch of four eggs. Young birds fledge a week to ten days after hatching, but are not capable of flight until a few days after leaving the nest. The diet of breeding adults is 70% insects and 30% seeds, while for young birds, it is the reverse: 70% seeds and 30% insects. Outside of the breeding season, Dickcissels feed mostly on seeds, including weed seeds and cultivated grains. Dickcissels migrate in flocks, sometimes gathering into groups of several hundred birds, and on their wintering grounds in the llanos of Venezuela, they are extremely gregarious, forming flocks that can number over one million birds.


Filed under Birds

17 responses to “Dickcissel on Bluestem for Mother’s Day

  1. Your long term vision is paying off. The return of more unusual animal species, and the utilization by other animals like deer will likely flourish from this point forward. That’s been my experience anyways, once you turn the corner in restoration projects things change quickly!

    • Hi Bill, it seems true. Things are changing quickly. More wildlife I am seeing. Sorry I’ve not be active here and at your place. Lot of things have happened and I’ll post later. Thanks for all your fine writing on your blog.

  2. Provide good habitat and the inhabitants will come. We see the same thing in wetland restoration projects. And, Wild Bill is right, once you turn the corner things have a tendency to change quickly. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready. You never know what’s going to pop up next.

    • Several things have been happening lately. Not all of them good, but that’s life. The Flying Hat Ranchito habitat, however, is replenishing itself, regardless of other follies in men’s lives.

  3. Pretty little bird. I’ve never encountered one: we are just west of its range.It will be interesting and satisfying to see what kind of visitors/residents you will end up with!

  4. The Dickcissel’s lovely. I’d not heard of it – what a delight it must have been to see and photograph it.

    A friend who dined with us today has been watching an example of parasitism in her backyard. She’d never heard of it – I’d heard of it but never seen it. We’re going to try and figure out what species are involved.

    You’d like her. She’s held off the Bellaire Yard Police for two years, telling them she can’t mow because she’s letting wildflowers go to seed, and they can’t stop her because Bellaire has declared itself a wildflower refuge. If she can expand her definition far enough, she’s going to be harboring all manner of creatures.

    • Yes, Linda, I would like her. Good, a wildlife refuge in an urban setting. Thank you for your comment and referrals. I hope to drop over and see your latest posts and photos.

  5. Erin R.

    It’s good to see your “stalking” was successful, Jack. Nice picture. I had never heard of a dickcissel. I looked up their sound on Cornell Lab’s website: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dickcissel/id
    It’s nice to see your familiar blog format back. Much easier on the eyes!

    • Yes, the stalking was successful. Thank you so much, Erin, for the link to the sound. I had not even thought about doing that, and the Cornell site is the best. Glad you like the old format returning. I had never heard of a dickcissel either until I started factoring its attributes. What an interesting little bird. Thank you, Erin.

  6. I just forwarded the link to this page to a friend who blogs at WeatherUnderground. She did some birding this weekend at the Lake Lewisville Dam/Trinity river basin and they ran into dickcissels there.

  7. Hello Jack!
    I would like to have your posts.

  8. Jack, seems a while since you last updated the blog – is all well?

    • Hi Bob: I went to your website again and was again impressed with your work. I’ll be back soon posting and taking pictures. Things have been happening and not all of them good. But, that’s life: the cycle.

  9. Pingback: Quail and deer lease my field | Sage to Meadow

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s