We were driving slowly west along Powder Mill Road when my wife, Pat, spotted a blue bird perched on a post. I pulled over and carefully backed up a bit, just in time to see the indigo bunting fly off. But with no road noise, we could hear a different bird singing away nearby. It only took a minute to find the songster sitting atop a fence.
He made a couple of soft buzzy notes followed by a brief pause and then, “DIK-DIK-ciss-ciss-cissa.” He repeated the song over-and-over again. This was a dickcissel (Spiza Americana) singing out his name.
Powder Mill Road bisects the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s flagship research facility. Buildings, barns and fields are spread out over 6,500 acres. The dickcissel was near one of the dairy barns and its pasture.
Dickcissels are grassland specialists. Their core breeding area covers the continent’s great prairie stretching from South Dakota to Oklahoma. So, what was it doing in Maryland? Dickcissels are great wanderers, spreading in small numbers from here to the Colorado foothills every summer.
Looking like a miniature meadowlark, the male dickcissel has a yellow breast with a large black V bordering its white chin. He has a bright yellow eyebrow and narrow vertical yellow stripes on his throat. The belly, vent and underwings are pale gray. On top, he’s a mixture of browns and blacks with rich chestnut shoulders.
The female lacks the central black chest marking, and her colors are paler versions of her mate’s. Both sexes have large, seed-crunching bills.
Dickcissels are among the most numerous breeding birds in North America. Partners in Flight estimates there are 27 million of them. Most migrate from South America, and they arrive in the United States in May and generally depart by September.
Nests are usually built in dense grasses, a bit off the ground. The female dickcissel constructs a small cup nest shortly after arriving in the breeding area.
She lays three to six eggs and will incubate them 12–13 days. Although they are born helpless and blind, chicks grow rapidly and fledge just eight to 10 days after hatching.
Male dickcissels are extremely protective of their territory. Vigilance is needed because males often stray into nearby territories to mate with other females. Most nests end up with eggs fertilized by more than one father.
Successful males drive out their younger and less experienced brothers, which is why so many birds in peripheral breeding areas are male. The dickcissel we saw fit that description.
Systematic recordkeeping of bird populations began with the advent of annual breeding bird surveys in 1966.
By then, the number of dickcissels had already declined because of constricting habitat. The decline continued for another decade before the population finally stabilized. (In a wonderful serendipity, the U.S. Geological Survey’s office that administers the authoritative Breeding Bird Survey, is located at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.)
In the last dozen years or so, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program has been effective in reclaiming grasslands in the mid United States. The program pays farmers a modest fee to voluntarily take some land out of production to foster conservation objectives. Tens of thousands of acres are now returning to native grasslands where dickcissels and other grassland species can thrive.
Dickcissels eat both insects and seeds during our summer. But during the nonbreeding months their diet is almost exclusively seeds. And that, as you will see, is a problem.
In the fall, dickcissels gather into ever-larger flocks before heading south. They range down through Mexico before settling in Central America and northern South America.
Just as its breeding range is sharply focused, so, too, is its winter habitat geographically centered. The seasonally flooded grasslands of Venezuela teem with dickcissels in January and February. Millions inhabit this area, called the llanos.
Today, biologists worry more about the bird’s fate on its winter habitat in Venezuela than its breeding areas in the United States.
The llanos have been converted to cropland where farmers grow rice and sorghum. The growth of a perfect food source (seeds) in the region supports enormous flocks of dickcissels.
But farmers view the birds as highly destructive. Among the lethal countermeasures they have employed is heavy pesticide spraying at night where the birds roost. One farmer told researchers that he killed more than a million birds by spraying.
Today, it is unlawful to kill these birds using pesticides, but the conflict between farmer and bird continues. Adherence to the law is uneven, especially since the country’s political turmoil began.
Back in Beltsville, the dickcissel seemed content to sit and sing. The bird’s patience gave me a moment to consider the different treatments of the species between its breeding and winter habitats.
Here, the government works in a coordinated, albeit imperfect, way to help the species recover.
In Venezuela, near-anarchy prevails. Basic government services are faltering and programs to aid birds are an afterthought at best.
It is a stark reminder that government, when properly funded and efficiently run, can be both a partner with farmers and an effective agent for ecological good.
That powerful message is brought to us by a wandering dickcissel. We would do well to heed it.
The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.