For the Birds Radio Program: Bobolinks

Original Air Date: June 7, 1989

One of the most joyful sounds of Minnesota and Wisconsin is no longer as commonly heard as it used to be, but poetry and poetic words about it endure. (4:06) Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of a Bobolink)

Long ago, Bobolinks were one of the most abundant birds of the prairies and grassy meadows of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and their joyful flight song rang through the open meadows, defining for many people the beauty of country life. Bobolinks were considered a beneficial species even in so unenlightened a time because they ate huge quantities of weevils, beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and the seeds of ragweed and other noxious weeds.

But Bobolinks developed a fatal attraction for rice as they migrated south each autumn, and once they left the north country on their long journey down to the central parts of South America, they fattened up on the rice fields of South Carolina. People there shot these Rice or Reed Birds, as they called them, in huge quantities and shipped them to markets in Philadelphia, New York, and even Paris.

Rice is no longer cultivated along the Bobolink’s main migration route, and the species has been protected for decades, but it has never recovered its former numbers. Rice is now grown in its winter habitat, and Brazilian men, who can shoot even their wives without recrimination, think nothing of blasting Bobolinks for sport. And the survivors that return to the United States often lose their eggs or babies when farmers mow their hayfields in June. So it’s no longer an easy matter to find a Bobolink field, and a great number of people have never seen one.

Male Bobolinks are handsome birds. They are blackbirds, and if one faces you on a wire, it looks all black. But if you see it from behind, it can’t be mistaken for anything else, with its creamy yellow nape, and bold white markings on wings and tail—it’s been described as a bird with its tuxedo on backwards. Females are muted and sparrow-like–they look like oversized LeConte’s Sparrows, and can often be found in the same pastures as LeContes. Females pretty much stick to business in summer, and so most of the Bobolinks we see are males.

Bobolinks sing with abandon and such exuberance that it’s impossible to watch one without feeling your heart swell. They have inspired poetry from a wide assortment of writers. Thomas Sadler Roberts, ornithologist at the University of Minnesota in the 1930’s, wrote, “In a favored place a dozen males may be in sight at once, swinging from the tops of tall weeds and flower stalks or circling in the air on fluttering wings, all vying with one another in a gushing medley of joyous, tinkling notes unrivaled among our singing birds. Ever and anon one of the circling birds sinks to the meadow below on upturned wings, fairly bursting with the ecstatic effort that pours from his vibrating body. An hour with the Bobolink in June is to the bird-lover an hour of long-remembered joy.”

William Cullen Bryant calls the Bobolink “Robert of Lincoln,” and wrote in his well-known poem:

Merrily swinging on briar and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink,
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers,
Chee, chee, chee.

Emily Dickinson also understood the magic of a Bobolink meadow, as she wrote in her poem #324:

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.

When the cares and pressures of our urban world seem overwhelming, look to the Bobolink for comfort and cheer.

(Recording of a Bobolink)

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