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Studer, Jacob Henry, 1840-1904. / Birds of North America

[Plate XXXIV. The red-headed duck. (Aythya americana.) cont.],   p. 47

Page 47

BOBOLINK, OR RICE-BIRD.               47
The Bobolink, or Rice-bird. (Dolichonyx orizyvorus.)
Fig. 4, Male. Fig. 5, Female.
This favorite bird, beloved throughout all the Northern States,
resembles man in his habits of tidiness. During his courtship, he
is as spruce as any dandy; when family cares arrive, his trim suit
becomes threadbare, and he drifts quickly into a sort of shabby
gentility. His spring coat is glossy black; hind head, clear cream
color; a patch on the side of the breast; feathers on the shoulder-
blade and rump white; outer primaries clearly marked and yel-
lowish-white; tip of the tail feathers of a pale brownish-ash.
Early in autumn, he gradually fades to the color of the female-
yellowish beneath; upper parts, dark brown, excepting the back
of the head and rump; two stripes on the top of the head; sides
sparsely streaked with dark brown. This bird has a wide-spread
geographical distribution, extending from the central portions of
South America as far north as the fifty-fourth parallel, and west to
the plains of Utah. It is known in the Southern States as the
Rice-bird, in the Middle States as the Reed-bird, while through-
out the Northern States the name Bobolink is universally given
him. It is also known as the May-bird, Meadow-bird, Butter-bird,
Skunk-bird, and American Ortolan. Dr. Coues says I" the name
' Ortolan,' applied to this bird, is a strange misnomer, the Ortolan
being a fringilline bird of Europe."
From the extreme southern point of their winter habitations,
they commence their northern journeys early in April. Audubon
tells us that small flocks appear in Louisiana sometimes as early as
the middle of March. Wilson notes their appearance in Pennsyl-
vania about the 12th of May; while, anywhere from the I2th to
the 20th of May, they may be found in full force in Northern New
York. It is claimed that when they first start on their migratory
journeys, they form immense flocks. If that be the case, long
before they reach their breeding haunts, they become widely dis-
persed, as they only appear in companies of a dozen or more, the
male usually preceding, by a fcw days, the coming of his partner.
By both Wilson and Audubon, it is stated that they do serious
damage all through the States of Virginia, Maryland, and Penn-
sylvania, by devouring wheat, barley, and corn, when in its milky
state, and every husbandman exerts himself to the utmost to de-
stroy them. Whether this be so or not, they are the northern
farmers' very best friend and ally, and deserve his kindest care
and protection. Their food, during the incubating season, consists
entirely of grubs, caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders,
crickets, and seeds of wild grasses and weeds, while recent inves-
tigations in the South have disclosed the gratifying fact that they
devour, in immense numbers, the larva of the destructive cotton-
worm, which so frequently threatens the entire cotton of the South.
As beautiful as is their song in the North, they favor the South
with still rarer treats in this direction. Audubon gives a descrip-
tion of their concerts, which must be enchanting. He writes:
" During their sojourn in Louisiana, in spring, their song, which
is extremely interesting, and emitted with a volubility bordering on
the burlesque, is heard from a whole party at the same time; when,
as each individual is, of course, possessed of the same musical
powers as his neighbors, it becomes amusing to listen to thirty or
forty of them beginning one after another, as if ordered to follow
in quick succession, after the first notes are given by a leader, and
producing such a medley as it is impossible to describe, although
it is extremely pleasant to hear it. While you are listening the
whole flock simultaneously ceases, which appears equally ex-
traordinary. This curious exhibition takes place every time that
the flock has alighted on a tree, after feeding for a while on the
ground, and is renewed at intervals during the day." Dr. Brewer
tells us that these concerts may also be witnessed early in April,
in the vicinity of Washington, the Smithsonian grounds being a
favorite place of resort.
At the North, unfortunately, they fail to indulge in these gen-
eral concerts. Busy with the affairs of courtship, each bird pays
individual court to the lady of his choice, and sings for her his
most hilarious melody. Sometimes, two or three gay gallants pay
the most assiduous court to one demure little Quaker maiden. We
know of nothing more delightful than, on some June morning,
when all the earth and sky blend in sweetest harmony, when the
scent of apple-blossoms have not faded utterly out, to lie ensconced
in the dark, luscious grass, and watch the Bobolink in his wooing.
He sits upon the highest fence-stake for a moment, and then rises
gracefully into the air, and pours from his open throat the most
wonderful succession of tinkling, vibrating, ringing, rollicking
notes that ever filled the ripples of the summer air, wheeling
here and there, shouting II bob-o-link, bob-o-link," and then jin-
gling off into a succession of the sweetest, most joyous, ecstatic
notes. What pen of man can ever hope to convey the most dis-
tant idea of its charming effect? Swaying upon some tall spear
of grass, he rests for a moment, and but for a moment, when his
indescribable melody again greets you from mid air. Dr. Brewer,
who has written charmingly on the songs of our native birds, says
of these birds: "I They pour out incessantly their strains of quaint
but charming music, now on the ground, now on the wing, now on
the top of a fence, a low bush, or the swaying stalk of a plant that
bends with their weight. The great length of their song, the im-
mense number of short and variable notes of which it is composed,
the volubility and confused rapidity with which they are poured
forth, the eccentric breaks, in the midst of which we detect the
word I bob-o-link' so distinctly enunciated, unite to form a gen-
eral result to which no parallel is found in any of the musical per-
formances of our other song-birds. It is at once a unique and a
charming production."
The nest of the Bobolink is always found upon tne ground. In
some meadow, near which running water abounds, they select a
rank tussock of grass, and, screened by its green verdure, they
make a loose and slightly hollowed nest. This nest is composed
of the herbage which conceals it, and in it are laid from five to six
eggs of a dull-white ground, sometimes tinged with a light drab or
delicate olive, and spotted and blotched all over with a mingling
of rufous-brown and lavender. The female is exceedingly shy,
and guards the approaches to her nest with the utmost care, always
running through the grass quite a distance from it before she takes
wing, and using the same precaution on her return, while the male
cunningly pretends great anxiety over some different locality, if
your footsteps get too near his sitting mate. So cunningly are
these nests constructed, and so much care is taken to protect them,
that one must needs work long to discover their exact locality.
When the young are hatched, the father forgets his song in his
anxious hunt for coleopterous insects, with which to satiate their
gaping mouths. After they leave their nest, they still provide for
them for a short time, until they have learned where to find and
how to catch their own food, when they are compelled to shift for
themselves. This occurs about the I5th of July. Freed from
care, careless of his apparel, happy, if slipshod, his rollicking
song subdued to a simple chirck, the Bobolink passes away the
summer hours, until about the xst of September, when they move
into winter-quarters. As they pass southward, these flocks increase
in numbers. They crowd along the river-courses, feeding on the
seed of the reeds, becoming very fat, and are shot down in masses.
Still farther South, the rice-fields afford them the most delicious
eating, upon which they fill themselves to repletion, and become
easy prey to the most inexpert sportsman. Both Wilson and Au-
dubon tell us that they are then killed by the millions. In the West
India Islands, they feed on the seeds of the Guinea-grass, and are
known as Butter-birds. We regret our space forbids our introduc-
ing Bryant's beautiful poem, in which, under the guise of " Robert
of Lincoln," the charms of this beautiful bird are fittingly sung; a
regret which also extends to Washington Irving's no less exquisite
prose panegyric, which may be found in " Wolfert's Roost."

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