Bobolink Song-Fantasia

“A bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” What an apt poetic description of the Bobolink song from the pen of ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954). The exuberant notes produced by the male seem otherworldly in quality and bring to my mind the silly sounds produced by R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies.

The Bobolink frequents grassy meadows of the northern states and adjacent Canada. Also referred to as “skunk blackbird,” the male has striking black-and-white plumage, making identification easy. Females are buffy yellow-brown.

Wintering in South America, Bobolinks migrate more than five thousand miles to and from their breeding grounds. Arriving at northern meadows in May, males stake out territories and court females by chasing them about in the air and singing ecstatically while perched or in flight.

Each male has a repertoire of two different songs, which are presented more or less randomly during a singing bout. Shortened songs may also be given. Flight song, given as a male circles above his territory, is an extended performance in which two or more songs are strung together.

Bobolink song is so amazing that it is impossible to describe with words. Only poetic references come close to capturing the essence. My favorite is by F. Schuyler Mathews, author of the classic Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, first published in 1904. He refers to song as “a mad, reckless song-fantasia, an outbreak of pent-up irrepressible glee”.

Wow … what fantastic verse. Listening to the Bobolink’s song, maybe you too will be inspired to wax poetically!

Bobolink Voice Examples:

1. “Typical song” played at normal speed and then played at one-third speed:

2. Extended “flight song” played at normal speed then played at one-third speed:

Note: Sound recordings © Lang Elliott – All Rights Reserved.

A Note from Lang:

portrait of Lang Elliott among maple leavesOf all our meadow birds, the Bobolink excites me the most. I love hearing the first bubbling notes of males as they arrive from migration. Within a week, territory formation and courtship are going full tilt and the meadow is bursting with Bobolink music. What an amazing concert indeed!

Hearing five or six males casting their gurgles across a meadow in spring is a treasured experience, a avian performance of such magnitude that it will resound in your mind long after the Bobolinks are gone. Even in the the middle off winter, echoes of Bobolink songs will swirl in your mind, sweet reminders of an incredible bird that stir one’s anticipation of the Bobolink’s eventual return.

The Video Footage: I actually put this video together way back in 2010. At that time I was shooting with a full-frame DSLR (Canon 5D Mark II), which created very lovely, out-of-focus backgrounds … a cinematic look. While my current gear registers a noticeably sharper image, I am pleased with how great this “older” footage looks.

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Video Metadata

A video celebrating the Bobolink, a striking meadow bird with an otherworldly song ... "a mad reckless song fantasia, an outbreak of pent-up irrepressible glee." Video and sound © Lang Elliott.

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  1. I finally found the time to savor this video, and am so glad I did. The Bobolink is one of my very favorite birds. I grew up with them on a farm in New York state, but we only see them in migration here in Virginia, and how I miss their rollicking songs! This video was absolutely gorgeous, the close-ups, the many variations of their song and calls, the lovely females, right down to the beauty of the greenery they were filmed on. Thank you so much!!

  2. Great video. I love all of your stuff & appreciate you putting it out there for us to experience up close.

  3. The slo-mo bird calls are always a deeply welcome window into the constructs of bird song. Love ’em. Thanks.

    • I hope to do lots more slo-mo. New equipment will make it easier for me to shoot at higher frame rates, allowing for sharper slo mo footage, though I don’t really mind some blurring … gives it a magical quality.

      I have the goal of getting killer footage of a number of our thrushes and then putting together a celebration where all species have slowed singing segments.

  4. My favorite birds! I can’t begin to tell you how much I love the video. These birds are often way out in the meadows and I don’t often get to watch them sing from close enough to see their movement with the pitches. I’ve glad you included the female, too, as the females are quite beautiful in their own right.

    • These were fairly tame-ish birds, although they wouldn’t let me get real close. Wind was a big problem. I videotaped them about three different times and it was windy on all those mornings. I shied away from getting close to nests because they’re so easy to step on. When I heard alarm calls from the male and/or female, I would stop and film without going closer.

      Next year, I plan to work on them again, shooting exclusively in 4K video for higher sharpness/resolution.

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