Photos and article by Charly Mann
A beautiful Dickcissel outside of Bartlesville, Oklahoma
The Dickcissel is a small bird that gets little respect. First because they look like miniature versions of Meadowlarks, and inhabit the same prairie and pastureland where they also live. Second, because they gather in large flocks in their winter home in Venezuela and are routinely poisoned there in large numbers to prevent them from eating crops. In the United States where they lay their eggs in fields, farmers often mow their fields in August which destroys the nests before the chicks have hatched. As a result, the Dickcissel population has declined by at least a third in the last two decades. There are several locations in Oklahoma where I routinely find populations of these birds, and since last year (2009) I have noticed their numbers are less than half of what they were.
A female Dickcissel with nesting material outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma
Dickcissels are about the size of a sparrow and weigh no more than an ounce. Males and females look almost identical, except females do not have a black bib under their chins. These are very colorful birds. They have grey on their cheeks, belly, the back of their necks, and on the crown of their head. They have a yellow chest, forehead, and chin. The back of a Dickcissel is streaked brown and black like a sparrow.
A male Dickcissel
I must confess that in most of the areas I go to look for birds I often overlook the beauty and grace of the Dickcissel, as my eyes are much more focused on finding other birds. Over the years I have taken them for granted as they sing perched on fence posts or the tops of tall shrubs in nearby pastures. These birds are given more respect in Texas where they are often referred to as Townsend Buntings.
A Dickcissel in a tree near Ramona, Oklahoma
The male Dickcissel is seen more often by humans than the female. They spend almost of their time singing away on tree tops and fences to attract a female, taking occasional breaks to catch an insect. Females on the other hand spend their time in the tall grass as the sole nest builder, incubator, and feeder of the young. The Dickcissel nest is either on the ground, or on some short shrub close to it.