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The upside down jewel of the prairie

With so much ornithology occurring in a Nebraska prairie in June, it is easy to become distracted.  A few bird species, though, capture one’s attention and won’t let go.  One of those species is the Bobolink, a bird  so marvelous it has been a subject of several poems (e.g., 1 2 3), including those penned by Emily Dickinson.

Bobolink
The frontal view of a breeding male Bobolink gives the impression the bird is entirely black.  While they are not entirely black birds, Bobolinks are members of the blackbird family (Icteridae).

My first memories of Bobolinks were as a young kid in the pastures around Sprick’s Pond, a local fishing hot spot in Washington County.  In addition to their proper common name, my dad informed me at the time that Bobolinks were also sometimes referred to as “upside-down-birds” and “inkle-binkle-birds”.  Both names are fitting and refer to different aspects about the species.  Male Bobolink’s breeding plumage is different than most species in that the colorful parts of the plumage are on the bird’s back rather than the front, which is all black.  The Bobolink is sometimes described as appearing as though it put on a tuxedo backwards.  However Bobolinks wear their colors, the result is a stunning grassland bird.

Bobolink
Bobolink viewed from a different angle reveals a lemon colored nape and white feathers mingling with black on its upperparts.

The “inkle-binkle” is something my dad apparently manufactured as a young lad after hearing the Bobolink’s complex, bubbly, albeit metallic sounding, song.  The song is often sung when males are in flight and attempting to garner the attention of females.  They often sing while perched, too.  To hear the Bobolink’s song, play the video at the bottom on this blog post.

Bobolink
A closer look at the Bobolink’s backwards tuxedo.

Bobolinks are fairly common in Nebraska, particularly in wet meadows.  They are a bit more common in northern Nebraska and occur rather locally south of the Platte River.  They can be found in Nebraska from early May through early September.  They conceal their nest in grass, as shown in this nice post on Chris Helzer’s blog.

Bobolink
Female Bobolinks are relatively plain compared to males.  By late summer, males will complete a full molt and their plumage will appear similar to this female at Mallard Haven Waterfowl Production Area, Fillmore County, on 27 June 2015.

Many grassland bird species are suffering population declines and Bobolinks have declined in parts of their range.  Bobolinks, however, seem to be holding their own in Nebraska based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) trend data.  Bobolinks have one of the longest migrations of any of our songbirds, breeding in Nebraska and over much of temperate North America and wintering in south-central South America.  Any one bird can travel up to 12,000 miles in year.

Bobolink
Bobolink in song over a Nebraska prairie.

Bobolink are most easily observed in late spring and early summer, during the peak of their breeding season, when males jubilantly sing over the prairie.  By late summer, males stop singing and molt out of their ornate breeding plumage and assume an appearance similar to females.  By this time of year, it can be challenging to find the species, but they are occasionally found in flocks before they migrate out of Nebraska in September.

There is still time left this summer to enjoy a morning with Bobolinks.  It will be time well spent.

Good birding!

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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