Protect Dates: September 2014- August 2015
Details: Through the help of kids just like you, Earth Rangers, Couchiching Conservancy in Ontario and Regroupement QuebecOiseaux are protecting bobolinks. The donations raised for this Bring Back the Wild™ project are helping to:
- Restore important breeding habitat and help farmers manage their land in ways that will help protect bobolinks
- Support research for population monitoring so that we can learn more about these incredible songbirds
Check out the latest updates about bobolinks!
• A bobolink is smaller than a robin and weighs about the same as a kiwi fruit
• Male bobolinks have distinctive colouring on their shoulders, back and head
• In the breeding season they are found in grasslands throughout southern Canada and northern USA, then migrate about 10,000 km to southern South America to spend the winter
• Bobolinks help farmers by eating pest insects that could otherwise destroy crops
• In addition to insects, bobolinks also eat seeds, oats and rice
• Female bobolinks build their nests on the ground close to large grasses offering protection from predators
• A threatened species in Canada (COSEWIC 2010) and listed as least concern internationally (IUCN 2012); biggest threats include habitat loss due to land development and pesticides
The bobolink is a medium-sized migratory songbird. Smaller than a robin, the bobolink is 15-21 cm, and weighs about 35 g (1.2 ounces); that’s the same weight as a kiwi fruit or a stack of eight Canadian quarters.
During the breeding season it’s pretty easy to pick a male bobolink out of a crowd, thanks to its distinctive feather colouring. No other bird in North America has black with white patches on its back, white shoulders and a bright yellow nape (the back of its head and neck).
While the male bobolink is flashy and distinctive as he tries to attract a mate, he molts into more subdued colouring when the breeding season ends. Once summer is over the male bobolink’s distinctive feathers are replaced with light and dark brown feathers, making them look at lot more like the female.
Bobolinks are found in every province in Canada. In Ontario they live south of the boreal forest in Southern Ontario (from Ottawa to Windsor).
Their preferred habitat changes depending on the time of year. During the breeding season bobolinks make their home in open grassland and farm fields. Just before migrating, bobolinks move from their breeding grounds to freshwater marshes where they molt into their non-breeding feather colours (plumage).
As winter approaches, it’s time for these little songbirds to fly south. Did you know that bobolinks have the longest migration of almost any other songbird? Each year they fly from their home in southern Canada and northern USA, all the way to southern South America; that’s 20,000 km roundtrip each year. If you add up the total distance a bobolink will fly during its lifetime, it would circle the Earth 2-3 times!
When they finally reach their wintering grounds in South America, bobolinks look for grasslands, marshes, rice fields and sorghum fields (a type of grass). They will stay here until spring, when they head back to Canada to breed for the summer.
Bobolinks play a big role in their ecosystem and are especially helpful to farmers. By living on farm fields and eating insects, these birds help keep farmers’ crops pest-free. From May to August, when they are taking care of their young, bobolinks eat mostly insects. In fact, studies have found that, during this time of year, bobolinks fill their stomach with 70-90% pest insects and only 5% other insects.
Bobolinks and their nests are often the targets of attacks by larger birds, snakes and mammals. Brown-headed cowbirds, for example, try to lay their eggs in bobolinks’ nests, pushing out the bobolink eggs. Bobolinks also have to worry about predators sneaking up and eating their eggs or chicks. As a way to protect their nests from predators, bobolinks choose spots that are extremely well hidden by tall grasses.
The bobolink’s beak is designed for munching on seeds. Its strong beak can break through a seed’s tough shell without a problem. In addition to seeds, these songbirds also eat insects, insect larvae and arthropods (like spiders, grasshoppers and beetles) while on their breeding grounds.
During the fall and winter bobolinks add something new to their diet. Did you know that the bobolink’s species name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating”? It refers to the bobolink’s appetite for rice when it is travelling and living down south in the winter. While rice makes up a large part of their diet at this time, it isn’t the only thing they eat. Bobolinks also snack on other grains like oats and corn tassels, as well as seeds and arthropods.
Each spring, when bobolinks return to Canada from their wintering grounds, they get right to work finding a mate. Males are the first to arrive followed quickly by females. Males put on an elaborate courtship ritual in hopes of attracting the right mate. They show off their fantastic flying skills and beautiful song. Once the female accepts the male, they pair up.
It’s the female’s job to build the nest. Unlike many other birds that nest in trees, bobolinks nest on the ground. The female bobolink clears off a patch of ground at the base of tall grasses and makes a small cup-like depression using the shape of her body. Next, she weaves dead grass and weeds together to make the nest wall and lines the inside base of the nest with fine pieces of grass. This soft grass will help keep her comfortable when she is sitting on her nest for hours each day. The nest measures about two inches deeps and 2.4 to 4.3 inches across.
The mother lays one egg a day for about five days starting in late May. She sits on the eggs for about 13 days, incubating them and keeping them warm until they are ready to hatch. She takes care of the nestlings until the end of July or until the last baby bird has left the nest.
- Threatened (COSEWIC 2010) and least concern (IUCN 2012)
- Biggest threats include habitat loss, land development and threats on the wintering grounds
Although bobolinks are pretty common on the grasslands of southern Canada and northern USA, their numbers are declining. Over the past ten years their population has dropped about 4% per year. The numbers are even more alarming when you go back further. From 1968-2006 (38 years) bobolinks declined 71% in Ontario and 80% in North America!
What has caused such a dramatic decline in bobolink populations? The answer is the same for many other threatened animals: habitat loss. Grasslands are the most threatened land habitat type in Canada. Thankfully, bobolinks have adapted to planted grasslands and pastureland, like on small farms. Unfortunately, these small farms are being converted into large-scale farming operations which don’t provide the same quality of land habitat bobolinks need to flourish.
Over the past 60 years changes to the way farms operate have impacted many bird species all over the world. These large-scale farms often bring more machines and pesticide use with them, two things that put many birds, including the bobolink, at risk.
Bobolinks are also sensitive during the time when farmers harvest their hay. On many farms hay is collected during the peak of the bobolink nesting season (late June-early July). Since bobolinks build their nests on the ground, the nests and chicks can be damaged during hay collection and often don’t survive. It can make a world of difference if farmers hold off collecting their hay until nesting season is over in late July.
Bobolinks also face threats on their wintering grounds. Like their breeding grounds, bobolinks are at risk due to habitat loss and pesticide use on their wintering grounds. They are also persecuted by humans when giant flocks (numbering in the tens of thousands) land on private property.
To protect the bobolink Earth Rangers is teaming up with Holcim Canada, Regroupement QuebecOiseaux and the Couchiching Conservancy and we need your help! By signing up for a Bring Back the Wild bobolink campaign, you will help restore native grassland habitats for bobolinks by removing trees and shrubs from grasslands and planting native prairie grass seed so that the bobolinks have large, open grassland spaces to raise their young. Your support will also allow us to search for nests and record the number of baby bobolinks hatched in restored habitats verse unrestored habitats, and put geolocators on bobolinks so we can track them and learn more about their migration. All of these actions will help ensure these incredible, bubbly songbirds have a safe place to find food, nest and raise their young.
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