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