For the Birds Radio Program: Bobolink
Laura talks about the Robert O’Lincoln of the bird world. Date confirmed. 3:37
Northland pastures and meadows are home to one of the jolliest of blackbirds, the Bobolink. “Robert O’Lincoln,” William Cullen Bryant called it, and Bryant’s poem transcribed its song as “Bobolink, bobolink, spink spank spink.” Ogden Nash Objected to Bryant’s flowery phrases, parodying the poem with “Bobolink! Bobolink! Spink! Spank! Spink! Bobbink! Atkink! Sprink! Burpee!” One early American ornithologist said the song sounded more like “Tom Noodle, Tom Noodle, you owe me, you owe me, ten shillings and sixpence.” An ornithologist named Dawson tried transcribing the song as “Oh, geezeler, geezeler, gilipty onkeler, oozeler, oo.” The state ornithologist of Massachusetts during the 1920s, Edward Howe Forbush, wrote:
This is about the only bird that completely baffles the latter day “interpreters” of bird music. His notes tumble out with such headlong rapidity, in an apparent effort to jump over each other, that it is next to impossible for the scribe to set them down in the proper sequence of musical notation. Nevertheless, this harum-scarum expression of irrepressible joy is of the most pleasing character, and ranks among the finest music of the fields.
Because Bobolinks have been so well known among the early European settlers of America, they acquired many nicknames over the years. Viewed head-on, a bobolink is pure black, showing off its membership in the blackbird subfamily, and the white and yellow markings on its back gave it the moniker “skunk blackbird.” Back in the days before songbirds were protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bobolink’s tasty meat placed it on turn-of-the-century menus of fancy East Coast restaurants. Since even a fattened, fully feathered Bobolink weighs less than 2 ounces, it took several “reed birds on toast” to make a meal. In Jamaica, it’s still called the Butter Bird. Southern farmers once called it the Jeckyl and Hyde bird—it was pretty and joyful in spring, but as the rice ripened, it pigged out on the fruits of the farmers’ labors. Its rice-eating habits also gave it the nickname “rice bird.”
The Bobolink is a true long-distance migrant, breeding in the northern states and Canada and then, at summer’s end, flying over 5,000 miles down to southern Brazil and northern Argentina. Bobolinks were abundant in the 1700s and early 1800s, but were so heavily hunted for food and to keep them out of rice fields during migration that the population was decimated. Nowadays there is little rice grown in the main migration route of Bobolinks, but they’re still shot at in huge numbers in South America.
It takes only 23-27 days for a Bobolink to develop from a newly-laid egg to a flying bird, but during that critical time, farm cats and mowing machines destroy thousands of these pleasing little sprites. When farmers delay haying their fields until baby Bobolinks are flying, they give this extraordinary species a chance of recovering its numbers, and give themselves the opportunity to enjoy bubbly Bobolinks for many years to come.