This is my favorite photo of a dickcissel though she’s not what you usually see in the field. This bird is female so you won’t find her singing from a perch like her mate who has a black throat and bib.
Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are so rare in western Pennsylvania that I had never seen one until last weekend. They normally nest in the Great Plains but they’re nomadic and will move their range when food is scarce. This summer they’ve come east to Mercer, Lawrence, Crawford, Clarion, Indiana and Allegheny Counties.
These birds are well studied because their population declined precipitously from 1966 to 1978. Scientists thought dickcissels would go extinct by the year 2000 but that didn’t happen because the studies revealed the twofold cause. One was the loss of un-mowed grassland habitat for nesting. The other larger cause was death on the wintering grounds.
Dickcissels actually spend more of their lives in Venezuela than they do in the U.S. While it’s winter here they live in huge flocks in Venezuela where they eat grasses and grains, sometimes in agricultural fields. A single roost may contain 10% to 30% of the entire species population so when frustrated Venezuelan farmers killed entire roosts with organophosphate and organochlorine pesticides (DDT), the birds were suddenly in serious trouble. Thankfully non-lethal control measures were put in place, wholesale killing was outlawed, and the dickcissel population stabilized.
But these grassland birds are still rare here. This summer provides an unusual opportunity to see them in western Pennsylvania. Check for sightings on PABIRDS or eBird and visit the grasslands soon. Male dickcissels will sing while the females nest but the flocks will leave in August. They have a long trip ahead of them.
(photo by Bobby Greene)