Here in Upstate New York, Bobolinks arrive the second or third week of May, homing-in on the beautiful grassy meadows that grace our pastoral landscape of rolling hills. Males show up first and partake in riotous display as they flutter over the fields, singing excitedly and chasing one another about like schoolboys at play. This energetic spectacle is amazing to behold … not only the sight of the boldly-colored black-and-white males cavorting over a greening meadow, but also the sounds of their bubbling songs, seemingly thrown into the air like glittering stardust that drifts and spreads across the meadow before gently settling into the grass.
No other bird song compares to the Bobolink’s. F. Schuyler Mathews, in his classic Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music (1904) fittingly described it as “a mad, wreckless song fantasia, an outbreak of pentup, irrepressable glee.” While songs may at first sound infinitely variable, each male actually has only two song types in his repertoire, although he may not always sing them in their entirety.
While males are easy to recognize by their striking black-and-white plumage, females are a buffy yellow-brown and might easily be confused with female Red-winged Blackbirds that frequent the same habitat. Once a male has established a territory, he will court a female by rapidly chasing her around the meadow. Other males may also give pursuit, but eventually the female settles into the territory of one male to lay her eggs. Males are “polygynous” in that a male may have more than one female nested on his territory and father young with all of them. But his female residents may not be entirely faithful, and may lay clutches of eggs sired by more than one male!
The footage in the video was all gathered in the Finger Lakes National Forest near Reynoldsville, New York. Bob McGuire recorded sounds as I did the taping. We were quite fortunate to capture most of the Bobolink’s sound repertoire —not just song, but also their various calls. In the video, listen for the stacatto chack alarm calls of both males and females, male alarm whistles, buzz calls of the male, and a high-pitched series of zee calls given by a female.
Songs Slowed Down:
Although my Bobolink movie features a nice example of a slowed song, I decided to sift through my collection of recordings to see if I could find something even more compelling. What do you think of the following song, played first at normal speed and then slowed to about one-third speed? It has a nice cadence and reminds me of the sounds made by R2D2 in the movie Star Wars.
Bobolink song at normal speed and slowed to about one-third speed, 6 May 2004_Finger Lakes National Forest near Ithaca New York. © Lang Elliott.
Here is a recording of an extended song given by a flying male—notes are delivered at a fast pace and the song lasts a whopping ten seconds! It is surely impressive when slowed down to one-third speed, though not as pretty to my ear as the song of the above male:
Bobolink flight song at normal speed and slowed to about one-third speed, 28 May 1988, Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the upper peninsula of Michigan. © Lang Elliott.
Bobolink Meadow Soundscape:
In the nearby Finger Lakes National Forest, at the same location that we gathered the video footage, I was able to capture this wonderful “Bobolink Meadow Soundscape.” I’m very proud of this recording because it captures the delirious, ecstatic quality of a Bobolink-dominated soundscape. Turn the volume down if necessary and listen also for the songs of Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Field Sparrow, and a variety of other birds in the background.
Bobolink Soundscape, May 2009, Finger Lakes National Forest near Reynoldsville New York. © Lang Elliott.
The Finger Lakes National Forest