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Exploring Nature

Exploring Nature: Bobolinks

Sunday, January 8, 2023

We don’t usually have bobolinks in this area, but they sometimes stray through northern parts of the state on flights south to Brazil this time of year.

They fly to Brazil like millions of other avian travelers, because there is food and warmth to be found there.

Few birds have a more musical moniker than the bobolink. Its name mimics its bubbling, lyrical song which is often sung while the bird is in flight.

The bobolink belongs to the blackbird family and like many of its relatives, it winters in South America and then flies north to breed in southern Canada and the northern states.

This is a bird that enjoys dining on rice; in fact, its scientific name, Dolichonyx oryzivorus, means “long-clawed rice eater.” It once caused havoc in South Carolina rice fields by eating the tender grains early in the growing season.

Farmers retaliated by shooting the birds, firing shotguns into dense flocks. Professional hunters also shot and trapped the birds, sending tens of thousands to eastern cities where they were regarded as a delicious delicacy. “It is but a mouthful, but a luscious and delightful one,” wrote one gourmet in the 1800s.

Huge bobolink flocks are a thing of the past, somewhat like the onetime massive flights of the now-extinct passenger pigeon. But smaller numbers still hang on and this time of year, they will be landing in the grasslands and marshes of southwestern Brazil and Paraguay. Grain is ripening in these areas and the birds will follow the ripening fields southward, arriving in Argentina and Uruguay in January.

Weighing less than two ounces, this plucky bird is one of the champions of long-range migration. Nasal tissues of bobolinks contain magnetite, a magnetic mineral that can act like miniature compass needles. They also rely on the stars or the earth’s magnetic field to help orient them.

And, if all else fails, the bird can take information from the setting sun, via polarized light patterns, and use these as a directional compass.

All in all, the bobolink is a musical, masterful little bird — a true avian original. Long may it sing.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666