Dickcissels

This year (2017) will go down in the birding record books as a major invasion year for dickcissels, one of our favorite grassland birds.

Photography by Rich Armstrong

Photography by Rich Armstrong

David Sample wrote in the Breeding Bird Atlas I book “One of the old-time names for dickcissel – “little meadowlark” – certainly befits this species.”  As one scans across an old-field with binoculars, the bright flash of yellow with black on the male’s breast in the distance sometimes signals “meadowlark” to my brain.  Most often I become aware that I am in the vicinity of dickcissels while driving down a rural road through southern Wisconsin farmland on a hot, mid-summer day with the car windows rolled down. The familiar silhouette of this larger-than-a-sparrow-but-smaller-than-a –meadowlark bird perched high on a utility line with its head thrown back, followed by the distinctively percussive song dick, dick…ciss,ciss,ssel as I whiz past, is unmistakable.”

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife (1991) that dickcissels are common summer residents in southern and western Wisconsin; fairly common summer residents in east and central Wisconsin and rare summer residents in the north.  Sam also wrote “as agriculture advanced northward in the state in the past 100 years, so has the range of this grassland species.” 

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

The main dickcissel breeding range is to the south and west of Wisconsin.  However, dickcissels are an erratic species in Wisconsin and their populations can vary greatly.  Kumlien and Hollister noted in the late 1800s that dickcissels were an erratic species.  Records show that between the 1920s and through 1967, years of high dickcissel abundance occurred at somewhat regular intervals of six years or less. The most startling invasion was in 1964, when dickcissels increased 50-fold and Wisconsin ornithologists estimated the state-wide population around a million birds. 

After 1964, a record high the federal breeding bird surveys (BBS) in Wisconsin found a 10.6% annual decline between 1966 – 2002 and dickcissels had the dubious distinction of having the most severe population decline of any bird species on the breeding bird survey routes.

Dickcissels winter in northern South America and sometimes flocks of a million birds can be found foraging in rice fields.  This long migration might be a reason they return to Wisconsin in late May through mid-June.

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

The first breeding bird atlas from 1995 - 2000 found dickcissels mostly in the southern two thirds of the state.  In Columbia County atlasers found dickcissels in 10 of the 18 quadrangles.

Dickcissel numbers have been remarkable in 2017.  Ryan Brady, DNR Research Scientist, is deeply involved with coordination of the breeding bird atlas project. Ryan emailed the Wisconsin Bird chat line: 

"I tallied 40 Dickcissels in little more than an hour and ten miles of effort across the Benoit field areas of Bayfield County. Smaller numbers are occurring elsewhere
in the region, providing further affirmation of their influx into even the northern tier of the state.”

Mark Korducki, the Wisconsin federal breeding bird survey coordinator also wrote to the chat line:

“I ran my BBS in the southern part of the state. My 21st year of running it and I established my personal high for total number of Dickcissels
and at the greatest number of stops. Definitely a banner year for this species. “

The goal of the atlasers in Columbia County is to record dickcissels as probable or confirmed breeding in every priority block.  We have been out surveying atlas blocks and have also been finding high numbers of dickcissels.  In the Sand Spring Creek atlas block in northeast Columbia County, we drove five miles and found an amazing, 55 calling males!  We found more dickcissels along roadsides with adjacent grassland such as pastures.  However, we also found them along brome grass roadsides adjacent to cropland.

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

We drove 1.5 miles of road along the edge of of Jackson Waterfowl Production Area (three miles southwest of Goose Pond Sanctuary on Oak and Patton roads on the Dane and Columbia County line). We heard 34 males both nights. In addition, we recently drove 1.5 miles around Ankenbrandt Prairie at Goose Pond Sanctuary and found 27 males.  Maddie and the interns are also finding dickcissels in our other prairies.

Take a drive along a county road with adjacent grassy fields with your car windows rolled down and listen for the welcoming call of the “dick – dick – ciss, ciss– ssel”.  Also visit Goose Pond Sanctuary to find dickcissels and other grassland species like clay-colored sparrows and eastern meadowlarks.

By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary