Bobolinks not popular with rice farmers

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By Sylvia Brockner

On Thursday morning, May 15, the birds at Evergreen Lake were awakened by the robust, rollicking song, “bob-o-link, bob-o-link, spink, spank, spink.” Words cannot do justice to the jubilant, bubbling sound of the bobolink. It is a loud explosion of exuberant joy, sung during migration and heard even more once they are on their breeding grounds. They sing on the wing, flying horizontally above the grasses in the fields where they nest.

Three days later on Monday, May 19, a delayed contingent of three male bobolinks was at the lake until they too moved on. Probably these birds were moving north to a hayfield near Boulder where they nest every year, or still farther north to grain or hayfields in Montana, Saskatchewan or Alberta.

Bobolinks are becoming so scarce that it is a joy to see them anywhere, but I am always amazed to see them at Evergreen Lake. One just does not expect to see these grassland birds perched in a ponderosa pine or a pussy willow. However, they are largely night migrants, and when morning comes the wetlands at Evergreen Lake were their only choice of a place to rest or refuel before completing their journey.

There is no need for a color TV to enjoy the handsome male bobolink, for it is a black-and-white beauty, so totally clothed in black and white that one of its colloquial names is “skunk bird,” which I find too derogatory for such a lovely bird. The bobolink is basically a black bird with large white scapulars and rump patch. The large nape patch, which covers the entire back of its head, is a rich cream color, not the pure white of the scapulars and rump. Some books refer to it as straw colored and others as pale yellow, but to this farm girl it is the color of rich heavy cream from a Jersey cow, almost the color of real butter.

Bobolinks were once very abundant birds in the hay fields and marshes across eastern North America, but they have declined drastically over the past 100 years, a decline that has been caused by several factors. They were heavily hunted for “market” in the southeastern states every fall, where they gathered in huge flocks in marshes and rice fields on their southward migration. Known as “reed” birds or “butterballs,” they were considered a great delicacy. Such hunting is no longer legal, but it took a big toll in its day.

Secondly, the “horseless buggy” brought about a decline in horses, which in turn brought about a decline in hayfields. Farmers put their hayfields into better cash-producing crops, thus the bobolinks lost much of its breeding habitat. Those hay fields had previously been harvested by hand or by horse and mower. With the advent of tractors and mowing machines, many of the grain and hay fields are harvested in late June when the young are still in the nest, often killing the young but also the close-sitting females as well.

The third reason for decline has been the increase in Brewer’s blackbirds during the past years. They use much the same habitat and, being bigger and bolder, drove the more docile bobolinks out of the few remaining fields.

This summer and fall destruction of bobolinks was bad enough, but they had at least been safe in South America during the winter. But that was soon to change. The vast pampas area west of the Parana and Paraquey Rivers in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil had long been a safe haven for wintering bobolinks, or “rice birds.” These grasslands have over the years become more settled, and rice growing has become a major crop. Bobolinks are the bane of a rice farmer’s existence and are now being killed by the hundreds in the area where the majority of the species formerly wintered in safety. Even though bobolinks eat many insects, rice farmers have a deep-seated irrational hatred for these birds. With such a gauntlet to run at both ends of their migration, there is little hope for this beautiful bird.