Seneca Meadows Dickcissels

photo of a DickcisselThe Dickcissel is an abundant breeder of the prairie grasslands with a range extending from Oklahoma/Kansas/Nebraska in the west to Ohio and southern Pennsylvania in the east. Furthermore, there are numerous records from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, though mainly during the fall. It is no real surprise then, as the tall grass portion of the Seneca Meadows Preserve in northern Seneca County NY matures, to read recent reports of Dickcissel there. It is possible that the drought in their core breeding range has forced some to move outward in search of more favorable conditions for nesting.* At least two males and one female (the latter apparently carrying nest material) have been seen just off the Oak Pass Trail. The males have been singing a large portion of the day, perched up on the tallest flower stalks and even from the top of a mature oak.

The opportunity of recording these uncommon, nearby birds was too good to pass up, and I recently spent a few hours documenting the male vocalizations. Dickcissels are not known to have a “dawn song”, but I noticed that the rate of singing (the number of songs per minute) was significantly higher at first light and then slowed down by about a third for the rest of the morning. Here is an example of song at 5 am:

Dickcissel song, 7 July 2012 4:55 am Seneca Meadows Preserve Seneca Co NY. Recorded by Bob McGuire.

Here is the same bird singing an hour later:

Dickcissel song, 7 July 2012 5:58 am Seneca Meadows Preserve Seneca Co NY. Recorded by Bob McGuire.

And there is another interesting thing: while Dickcissels are reported not to have subspecies,* both Seneca Meadows birds sang the same song, and it differed significantly from recordings we have of more western birds. Here are examples of songs from Oklahoma, Kansas, and two from Missouri.

Four Dickcissel song types from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Missouri.

While all these songs are clearly identifiable as Dickcissels (at least to the practiced ear), there is obviously a lot of variation. Perhaps they are regional dialects. All of this leaves me wondering, where did the Seneca Meadows birds come from? Most likely from Ohio or southern Pennsylvania. If that is true, then what does a Dickcissel from Ohio or southern Pennsylvania sound like?

* Temple, Stanley A. 2002. Dickcissel (Spiza americana), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology


  1. I have never heard or seen a Dickcissel so I can’t tell you what I think about personally hearing a dawn chorus.

  2. Excellent recordings, Bob. No expert here, either, but I have often heard distinct differences in songs within species from locale to locale. Earlier this month on Whidbey Island/Puget Sound I heard song sparrows that clearly sang with a lower pitch, slower cadence than I am used to here in upstate NY. I described them to the northwest version to my wife as a bit of a ‘drawl’ compared to our common upstate birds. We have had similar experiences with birds of various species on the Outer Banks of NC.

    I wonder if a bird’s ‘dialect’ changes with shifts in barometric pressure, one of those variables that while it is ever-changing everywhere settles on an average that differs from region to region and that over time might set the ‘tone.’

    We may see more unusual species setting up housekeeping in our area as the climate shifts. Many previously southern species – the red-headed woodpecker, egret, glossy ibis, dowitcher – fairly easy to find here in CNY on the right days under the right conditions.

  3. Thanks Wil. No, I did not make any extended recordings. The longest is about 2 minutes. The birds moved around quite a bit, spending, maybe, 5 minutes on a perch before flying. However, I spent roughly an hour with them, both evening and morning, and did not notice any change in song during that time. As I mentioned above, I have no idea what they sing at mid-day!

  4. Fascinating Bob. I have recordings of Dickcissels from Maryland and West Virginia that sound different still from the recordings that you have posted here.
    Certainly and interesting hole in our understanding of song in this species. Do you have any really long recordings of an individual that might have a song type change hidden within it?
    I will have to listen to my recordings and see if any are long enough to perhaps contain a song type change.
    Wonderful recordings as always Bob.

  5. Bob: Thanks for chiming in, looks like that clears up the isolation theory. I guess the dickcissels are just more talented than I initially gave them credit for!!

  6. The questions raised in all of these comments bring to mind Stanley Temple’s statement in his account of the Dickcissel in Birds of North America: “many aspects of its biology remain unstudied” !

    With regard to separation/dispersal of the population, Temple notes that the majority of Dickcissels spend 7 months of the year concentrated in a small area. He continues that, in February 1993, “at all known winter roosts in core winter range in Venezuela, where most Dickcissels congregate, total world population was at least 6 million; almost 40% of those birds were in 1 roost of 2,370,000”. To me, this points away from the concept of regional dialects and more towards individuals having unique songs or, perhaps, small, closely-related groups of birds having unique songs.

    A question that I would love to see answered is whether a single bird has more than one song. At first glance, it appears that the Seneca Meadows birds do not. At least one of the birds that I recently recorded at Seneca Meadows, NY sang the same song at 8 pm that it did at 5 am the next morning. (Of course, I do not have a sample from mid-day.)

  7. I understand and agree with the individual diferences. However, to me that doesn’t explain why birds in NY sound different than birds in OK/KS. I said geographic isolation because various populations would develop diferent “dialects” if they didn’t mix with other populations. I would think that if the dickcissels were all together in one big group the songs wouldn’t be exactly the same for all birds (citing individual variations as stated above) but that the songs would be much more closely related in pattern.

    I am surely not an expert either–this was simply my theory. If populations of birds are separated for long periods of time (because of geographic isolation or other factors that keep the populations from mingling) as in the birds of NY/PA/Mid-Atlantic and those of OK/KS/plains, then differences in the birds would definitely be evident. I have heard that over long periods of time of separation such as these, this is how new species form that are still closely related to another “parent” species.

    Sorry if I’m rambling- just thought this was an interesting point.

  8. Why do you think the differences between the songs above are due to geographic variation, rather than individual variation? Is it just because the two NY birds shared the same song type? Were the song types from the last clip (in OK, KS, and MO) known to be shared by all of the birds in the given region? (sorry if that sounds confrontational, it’s not meant to be — I’m genuinely curious).

    When I was recording in Iowa last summer, I heard at least 4 distinct Dickcissel song types from the same small patch of restored prairie. (Unfortunately, I didn’t pay close enough attention to know how many of those song types were shared between multiple individuals). That seems to suggest that Dickcissels in a given region don’t necessarily share a regional dialect. But I have limited experience with Dickcissels, so I don’t claim to be an expert.

    • Jonathon:

      I agree. I would chalk it up to either individual variation (more than one song in a male’s repertoire) or else variation within populations, and only resort to the regional dialect explanation if there is substantial proof. Checking out the “Birds of North America Online,” I find the following statements: “There is much individual variation within populations in number of notes and cadence. Variations among populations, if they exist in this semi-nomadic species, are undescribed.” Late in the monograph, the author (Stanley A. Temple) notes that “there is no specific information on repertoire,” in reference to the song repertoire of individual males.

      Thus it appears to me that crucial studies of song variation among males and within populations have not been done on this species, with things being complicated by the Dickcissel’s semi-nomadic habit of populations shifting erratically, presumably in response to the abundance of food supplies.

  9. I am surprised we never heard the dickcissel here in western NY, as our property has lots of meadows and fields. It is interesting how birds from different areas have such noticeably different “dialects,” as you called them.

    I wonder why that happens? Is it just different “colonies” of birds developing different song patterns due to geographic isolation?

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