LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Today we're spotlighting another Bird of the Week and we're joined by Sarah Baxter with Arkansas Game and Fish.
Today we're talking about the Dickcissel.
The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird that breeds in the prairie grasslands of the U.S. The males have a rusty-colored shoulder patch, and a yellow breast, with a black "V" in the center during breeding season, and a yellow eye stripe.
The females are much more drab, with a pale chestnut shoulder patch, pale yellow breast, buffy eye stripe, and a brown back with black streaks. The males have marking similar to the Eastern Meadowlark, but the Dickcissel is much smaller overall, with a much slimmer build. Both the male and female Dickcissel have a strong, heavy bill, similar to a Northern Cardinal, and in fact, the Dickcissel is in the Cardinal family.
During the breeding season, they feed on insects, rice and sorghum, as well as grass seeds. They can be found in open grassland habitats, including hayfields, pastures, agricultural fields, and along roadsides.
They can often be found perching on grass stems, barbed wire fences, or power lines, and in general, where there is one, there are many! This is a species that repeats their own name when they sing their song, which is a slow, clear "dick-dick-dick-cissel". They arrive here from their wintering grounds in Venezuela at the end of April, and are common in their breeding range in Arkansas through mid-September. They build an open cup nest, placed just above the ground in dense grass or in a sapling. They lay 3 - 6 pale blue eggs, and the young are helpless when they hatch.
Most songbirds are socially monogamous during the breeding season, meaning a male and a female alone build their nest and care for their young. Dickcissels are a little unusual in that they have a polygynous mating system, meaning one male may mate with several females. This is likely due to nest site availability, and not food sources.
Males defend territories, and some territories are higher quality than others. Females prefer territories with good nest sites (dense grasses and lots of forbs), it is most common for a male to mate with 1 or 2 females on his territory, a male who is defending a very high quality territory may be able to attract up to 6 females!
Dickcissels have a conservation status of Least Concern, though the population suffered steep declines in the late 1960's and through the 1970's, due to habitat loss on their breeding grounds (lots of grasslands were converted to agricultural areas). Since that time, populations have increased substantially, in part because of Conservation Reserve Programs.