Noisy Boys of the Prairie

Last week, I wrote a post about some bad science communication around bison and bobolinks. Later, I remembered I’d written about bobolinks for another project that never came together, so I thought I’d repurpose the essay here. Try not to think of it as leftovers – think of it as a response to your requests for more natural history information when you took the blog survey! Yeah, that’s what it is!

Birds that nest in grasslands tend to rely upon a ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ approach for success.  Most build a simple nest, either on the ground, or suspended not far from the ground in a clump of grass or wildflowers.  They then rely upon the camouflage of both their nests and themselves to escape predation by a range of animals or the sneaky brood parasitism of brown-headed cowbirds hoping to dump their own eggs in someone else’s nest. 

Bobolinks adhere to the first of those principles by building simple nests on or near the ground.  The females are also well-camouflaged; brown and stripy, which blends perfectly with the leaves and stems of last year’s prairie plants.  Male bobolinks, however, are among the most flamboyant of grassland nesting birds, both in appearance and behavior.  They’re no bird of paradise, but they are spectacular in their own right.

Male bobolink – The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.
Female bobolink. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Every spring, I look forward to hearing the first bobolinks show up in lowland prairies in Nebraska’s Platte River valley, as well as other similar habitats.  Their arrival is impossible to miss.  The relative quiet of winter prairies is broken by the long, rambling song of R2D2 from Star Wars.  Or at least a reasonable facsimile.  If you’ve never heard the song, I promise it’s worth your time to look it up online.

That song is delivered by a smallish black and white bird as it flies through the air or perches prominently on one of last year’s wildflower stems.  If I walk closer, the bobolink will usually circle around me, incessantly repeating its jumble of computerish beeps, chirps, and whistles, and giving me an even better look at it.  For first time viewers of bobolinks, one of the slightly disturbing features of males is that the pale buff patch on the back of its head almost makes it look like the rear portion of the skull (or brain) is exposed.  That buff-colored patch also seems to me to clash a little with the otherwise stark black and white feathers elsewhere – though no one should ever take fashion advice from me.

Bobolink nest hidden in the grass.
Four bobolink eggs and a brown-headed cowbird egg in a ground nest.

Like most other grassland birds, bobolink males establish and defend clear territories in the prairie.  To clarify, the territory boundaries are clear to them, though not necessarily immediately obvious to us.  If you flush a bobolink several times, though, and watch where it lands and where it doesn’t, you can get a pretty good idea of where its domain lies.  You can also figure it out by waiting until a female bobolink emerges from the vegetation and flies into the air. 

Male bobolink singing at me while I took his picture.

As soon as a female bobolink pops out, any male in the vicinity is right on her tail, chasing her like fighter pilots in a dog fight.  I usually see at least two males join the chase, but sometimes a third one enters the fray too.  Territory boundaries don’t prevent those males from following that female wherever she goes, but, at least in my experience, once she lands, only the male who owns the territory of her chosen landing place is entitled to land with her.  The interlopers fly back to their respective territories and wait for another opportunity.  There, they fly from perch to perch around the edges of their area of control, singing as if pausing to take a breath might give someone else the brief opportunity they need to interrupt.  I love them so much.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “Noisy Boys of the Prairie

  1. After I listened to the song, I realized I have heard Bobolinks. It had to have been in the midwest, though. I can’t connect the memory to a specific place, but there’s no mistaking that burbling song.

  2. Great blog and great nest pictures. My husband and I also love the bobolinks. They are mythic. In past 40 years we have seen them (for a year or two) in 2 private pastures in Washington County, where they complete nesting so early that they may escape the first mowing. But they are particular about mowing, and don’t return if they feel threatened. We are also regular visitors to two restored prairies in this county, and have never seen bobolinks in either.

  3. So now you have ruined my normal enjoyment of the males since I have always loved their upside down colors and now will only think of a bare skull! But great article and photos!!

  4. Another great edition to the Prairie Ecologist. I have fond memories of bobolinks. I had never seen one until I was 70 yrs. old, I thought they were long gone from my area. Then in a nature preserve prairie next to a major highway and massive shopping center I saw one and then several. Bobolinks really are impressive, thanks for sharing. Peter J. Hahn, commissioner PHNRC.

    On Tue, Nov 9, 2021 at 7:01 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Last week, I wrote a post about some bad science > communication around bison and bobolinks. Later, I remembered I’d written > about bobolinks for another project that never came together, so I thought > I’d repurpose the essay here. Try not to think of it a” >

  5. May favorite bird of the spring prairie! My Dad (who passed 3 years ago) said that as a kid he called them “Spink Spank Spink” birds, while growing up on a farm prior to and during the Great Depression. Until last year we had a pair in our south pasture and another pair across the road in a larger pasture. This year, for the first time we’ve been here (20 years), we had none…Then an even sadder event – the owner of the pasture across the road mowed their pasture before the Bobolinks had fledged there (they always used to mow “after” the 4th of July in past years). I was crushed as I watched the Bobolinks flying around the nesting site…no place to land, but on the ground…no nest/nestlings to be found. I feel I’m losing bits of me each year…I know there are still Bobolinks around – but I’m seeing this beloved grassland obligate dwindle before my eyes.

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