Bird Identification – Bobolink – Reedbird – Ricebird – Ortolan – Maybird
Such a rollicking, jolly singer is the bobolink! On a May morning, when buttercups spangle the fresh grasses in the meadows, he rises from their midst into the air with the merriest frolic of a song you ever heard. Loud, clear, strong, full of queer kinks and twists that could not possibly be written down in our musical scale, the rippling, reckless music seems to keep his wings in motion as well as his throat; for when it suddenly bursts forth, up he shoots into the air like a skylark, and paddles himself along with just the tips of his wings while it is the “mad music” that seemingly propels him:—then he drops with his song into the grass again. Frequently he pours out his hilarious melody while swaying on the slender stems of the grasses, propped by the stiff, pointed feathers of his tail. A score or more of bobolinks rising in some open meadow all day long, are worth travelling miles to hear.
If you were to see the mate of one of these merry minstrels apart from him, you might easily mistake her for another of those tiresome sparrows. A brown, streaked bird, with some buff and a few white feathers, she shades into the colours of the ground as well as they and covers her loose heap of twigs, leaves and grasses in the hay field so harmoniously that few people ever find it or the clever sitter.
As early as the Fourth of July, bobolinks begin to desert the choir, being the first birds to leave us. Travelling southward by easy stages, they feed on the wild rice in the marshes until, late in August, enormous flocks reach the cultivated rice fields of South Carolina and Georgia.
On the way, a great transformation has gradually taken place in the male bobolink’s dress. At the North he wore a black, buff and white wedding garment, with the unique distinction of being lighter above than below; but this he has exchanged, feather by feather, for a striped, brown, sparrowy winter suit like his mate’s and children’s, only with a little more buff about it.
In this inconspicuous dress the reedbirds, or ricebirds, as bobolinks are usually called south of Mason and Dixon’s line, descend in hordes upon the rice plantations when the grain is in the milk, and do several millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the crop every year, sad, sad to tell. Of course, the birds are snared, shot, poisoned. In southern markets half a dozen of them on a skewer may be bought, plucked and ready for the oven, for fifty cents or less. Isn’t this a tragic fate to overtake our joyous songsters? Birds that have the misfortune to like anything planted by man, pay a terribly heavy penalty.
Such bobolinks as escape death, leave this country by way of Florida and continue their four thousand mile journey to southern Brazil, where they spend the winter; yet, nothing daunted by the tragedies in the rice fields, they dare return to us by the same route in May. By this time the males have made another complete change of feather to go a-courting. Most birds are content to moult once a year, just after nursery duties have ended; some, it is true, put on a partially new suit in the following spring, retaining only their old wing and tail feathers; but a very few, the bobolink, goldfinch, and scarlet tanager among them, undergo as complete a change as Harlequin.