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Dickcissels Headed for Venezuela

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September 26, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal

If you’ve got the traveling bug, I suggest you forget high airline tickets and just hitch up with the Dickcissels. It’s goodbye to Arkansas nesting country, hello winter in ole Venezuela with stops along the way in Mexico and Central America.

Not bad for a bird six inches long and weighing in at less than one ounce!

A couple of weeks ago it was boiling inferno, 105 degrees. I did my birding in the morning, in creek bottoms where it was cool upper 80s. Yesterday it was 48 degrees as the sun cleared the horizon. I was in a jacket. And it’s not just the temperature that has changed. Like the boiling inferno, our Dickcissels are all but gone. I was out at Chesney Prairie Natural Area near Siloam Springs, a big grassland usually full of these small, gaudy, vocal birds. I found three and counted myself a rich man.>

Dickcissels get their name from the habit of males perching on any handy bush, fence, or powerline, drawing their smart-looking selves up to appear twice their size, and belting their simple DICK SIS SIS SEL all the inferno long days of summer. If you get a close look, note the singer’s handsome yellow breast and black upper chest, his gray neck, white eyebrow with dash of yellow, and especially his handsome russet shoulder. Females have too much common sense to perch oput like that, in hawk-land, and they are not far behind in the good looks department, even though they lack that dashing black.

Photo by Joan Reynolds - Dickcissel on poke at Chesney Prairie, Sept 7, 2011.

For spring tonic sure to shake off the winter lethargy, I head out to big brushy fields in the second half of April, looking for the first Dickcissels. After a rainstorm and a big wind out of the south, I am sure to find a few at the edges of fields like the ones at Chesney. Then come the flocks by early May. There may be 100 or even more at times together, fresh from the south, and pushing north for the nesting season.

When I hear a Dickcissel in northwest Arkansas in June and July, it’s like the old prairie of Native American times and our more recent Pioneer days have returned. Dickcissels are the premier birds of our former prairie grasslands, as typical of them as Big Bluestem Grass and compass plants covered with brilliant yellow flowers. We have lost most of our prairies, botanically-speaking, but fortunately our Dickcissels tend to be flexible and try to adapt to other kinds of grasslands, just so long as the fields remain big and open.

But now comes September. The singing for this year is over and most Dickcissels have slipped south. The scattered birds that remain are mainly juveniles hatched from late nests. DICK SIS SIS SEL is gone for this year. Juveniles, still attended by adult females, give loud WIT! calls to remind the females that they’d still like to be fed a juicy grasshopper.

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