Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)
Prepared by Paul Nicholson, September 2023
The Bobolink, a grassland bird, is a Species at Risk in Ontario. The bird pictured here is a male in breeding plumage. All photos by Paul Nicholson.
The plumage of the breeding male Bobolink is highly distinctive. Its face, chest, belly, wingtips, and tail are black, the rest of its wings, back, and rump are black and white, and the back of its head is pale yellow. The bird’s beak is conical to facilitate seed eating, and its toes are rather long. By late summer, these birds will have undergone a moult and will look very different.
Adult females, non-breeding adult males, and juveniles lack this bold colouring. Instead, the plumage is a tawny yellow with brown highlights including brown stripes on the crown.
Bobolinks are approximately 18 cm in length. They are part of the blackbird (i.e. Icteridae) family and can live to nine years of age.
It surprises some to learn that the Bobolink is in the blackbird family. The colouring of females, juveniles, and basic plumage adult males is much different from adult males in breeding plumage.
Between 1966 and 2019, Bobolink populations declined by an alarming 56% according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This decline is primarily attributed to habitat loss. Since 2010, the bird has been listed as a Species at Risk in Ontario. Its current status is “Threatened” meaning that the species will become endangered if steps are not taken to address factors threatening it.
The Bobolink has one of the longest migration routes of all North American songbirds. It makes a 20,000 km round-trip flight to the grasslands of Brazil and Argentina each year.
When Bobolinks return to their northern breeding grounds in the spring, the male competes for nesting territory. The female then clears a small spot on the ground, deep in the grasses of a meadow, and builds a nest. Like some other blackbirds species, Bobolink males mate with multiple females in the breeding season. Because the nests and the young are in meadows, there is a high risk over the course of about a month that all will be destroyed if hay is taken off the land too early.
Bobolinks feed on grains and other seeds, insects, and spiders.
Bobolinks have been reported in a few grassland areas within the City of London. From late spring through the summer, you might see and hear them at the north-east side of the Fanshawe Conservation Area, on the north side of Orr Dr. immediately west of Wonderland Rd. S., at Komoka Provincial Park north, or, occasionally, at Westminster Ponds. They can also be seen just west of London on the east side of McArthur Rd. south of Calvert Dr.
The Bobolink’s common name comes from its vocalization, a bubbly and vaguely metallic song that carries on for three or four seconds. The bird’s Latin binomial name (i.e. its scientific name) roughly translates to long-clawed rice eater.)
Listen to the Bobolink’s song below:
Help make London more Bobolink friendly:
Support the protection of natural habitats such as grasslands that Bobolinks need for food and breeding.
Avoid use of pesticides and reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Participate in citizen science initiatives such as recording Bobolink sightings in eBird.
If you reside near grassland habitat, retrofit your home windows using bird-friendly materials to prevent bird-window collisions, and keep cats indoors or leashed while outside to prevent them from predating on Bobolinks and other birds.