For the Birds Radio Program: The Bobolink

Original Air Date: May 25, 1987

Laura isn’t the only one who loves Bobolink. Odgen Nash and Emily Dickinson wrote poems about it. (3:19)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Bobolink)

Bobolinks are back in north country. The first migrants flew over Duluth on May 8, and now they are back on their familiar nesting grounds in pastures. I see lots of Bobolinks driving on Highway 13 between Duluth and Port Wing, Wisconsin. When a male bobolink sits on a wire along the road, it appears all black from the front–the handsome yellow and white markings are restricted to the back. The Bobolink is often described as wearing a tuxedo backwards. Less admiring observers call it the skunk blackbird. Female Bobolinks look like overgrown sparrows, and are often misidentified.

The Bobolink is related to blackbirds, orioles, and meadowlarks. It has one of the longest migration routes of all songbirds–about 5,000 miles from southern Brazil and Argentina all the way to the northern United States and Canada. On its spring migration through the southern states it is called the “May bird.” In New England it is sometimes called the “meadow wink.” It lives in grassy fields and pastures, and other nicknames reflect this–like the reed bird and the rice bird. It eats mainly insects and weed seeds during summer, but on migration often eats grain. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bobolinks were killed by the thousands to protect rice crops in South Carolina–the slaughtered birds were sold in markets in eastern cities. People cooked them in potpies or ate them on toast. Today Bobolinks are protected, but their nests and young are frequently destroyed during early summer cutting of hayfields, and so they have never recovered their former numbers.

The Bobolink probably takes its official name from its unpatterned bubbly song, which the male sings in flight, fluttering its wings stiffly as it circles its territory.

(Recording of a Bobolink)

William Cullen Bryant’s classic poem about the Bobolink, titled “Robert O. Lincoln”–introduced the phrase “Bobolink, Bobolink, Spink! Spank! Spink!” Ogden Nash must have had a bit of trouble making sense out of that–his Bobolink poem goes:


One early American ornithologist described the song as “Tom Noodle, Tom Noodle, you owe me, you owe me, ten shillings and sixpence.”

Emily Dickenson had a more ethereal sense of the significance of a Bobolink’s song. She wrote:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church–
I keep it, staying at Home–
With a bobolink for a Chorister–
And an Orchard, for a Dome–

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last–
I’m going, all along.

(Recording of a Bobolink)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”