Prairie Jewels

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Meet 10 grassland songbirds that benefit from healthy upland habitat and share pheasant country with our favorite gamebird

By Tom Carpenter

Good pheasant habitat produces much more than pheasants. Ducks, whitetails, and of course bees and butterflies, also benefit – whether it’s a patch of grass and forbs in a corner of the back 40, a buffer strip along a waterway, or a sprawl of native prairie rolling to the horizon. One often-forgotten class of citizens benefitting from upland habitat, though, are prairie songbirds. Here are 10 that return to pheasant country each spring and summer to nest, raise their young, and find a home.
 

BOBOLINK

Dolichonyx oryzivorus

A male bobolink in breeding plumage wears a reverse tuxedo: He is distinctively all-black below, streaked white above, with a creamy-yellow to dull-gold nape (back of the neck). The bill is conical and pointed. Bobolinks show off their napes and ruffle up their neck feathers when calling. Bobolinks are a little smaller and slenderer than robins.

A female bobolink is creamy-brown, with a buffy yellow tinge below. She looks a lot like a female red-winged blackbird, especially when swaying on a grassy stem. In fact, bobolinks are members of the blackbird family. 

Bobolinks were originally birds of the tallgrass prairie, and they prefer dense, grassy cover.  Meadows are prime habitat.

The bobolink’s song sounds like R2D2 from Star Wars: A bubbly, happy call starts with low buzzes and finishes with high-range gurgling.

Bobolinks are neotropical migrants, wintering in South America and returning to pheasant country when the weather has warmed and there’s plenty of insect life to forage on. The birds eat mostly bugs, grubs and caterpillars in spring and summer. Bobolinks nest close to the ground, at the base of grass clumps. Bobolinks are seedeaters otherwise, and are called “rice birds” in the southern United States for their penchant of descending on harvested fields in huge flocks.


DICKCISSEL

Spiza americana

If not for its diminutive size—only about six inches long—a breeding male dickcissel might be confused for a meadowlark. A dickcissel features a yellow chest with a black V below the throat, distinctive rust-colored shoulder patches, and a yellow eyebrow. Its sturdy, conical bill marks it as a seed eater.

Females show only a little pale yellow on their chest, though they do display rusty shoulder patches and soft-yellow eyebrows.

Dickcissels are almost always out in the open where they can get a good view. They perch on road signs, fenceposts, barbed wire, weed and grass stalks, and the rare prairie tree.

They are named after the sound they make, a sharp-to-buzzy dick – dick  – dick – ciss-ciss-cis-cis-cis-cis.

Dickcissels are among the last neotropical migrants to return to the pheasant country uplands each spring, often not arriving until the last week of May, after spending the winter in South America in huge flocks, eating seeds and grains.

Dickcissels are irruptive, meaning populations sometimes spike. Some years there are only a few around; other years, dickcissels seem to be everywhere there’s grass. Lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and unmowed roadsides all harbor dickcissels too.

Dickcissels nest at the bases of grass clumps, and the young are fed a steady diet of insects.
 

WESTERN MEADOWLARK

Sturna neglecta

The western meadowlark sings perhaps the happiest songs in the bird world—a flute-like triplet or so of whistles followed by a gurgly bubble of notes traveling up a musical scale. That song is key to identifying a western meadowlark from the nearly look-alike eastern meadowlark, which sings a mere three- to five-note whistle.

The western meadowlark is robin-sized, about 10 inches long. A male in breeding plumage is streaked brown on top but bright yellow below, with a prominent black V at the top of the breast. Females look similar but the breast is a paler yellow and flecked, without a black V.

Meadowlarks are ground feeders, using their long, sharp bills to feed on grains, seeds and insects, and to probe and pry the ground for insects and seeds.

Western meadowlarks are birds of greatest conservation need in many places. Populations have been declining. Science suggests that meadowlarks, like many prairie birds, have been affected by neonicotinoids, a group of insecticides used on crops that also poses dangers to bees and butterflies.

Western meadowlarks prefer shortgrass prairie habitat. They love the prairie primeval but adapt well to grassy fields, pastures, meadows and marshland edges. Meadowlarks are members of the blackbird family, and ground nesters. They often build grass domes over their nest cups.
 

CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR

Calcarius ornatus

A breeding male chestnut-collared longspur shows off a jet-black crown, chest and belly; buffy yellow cheeks and throat; distinctive white stripes above and below the eyes; and its namesake nape. Females are streaked brown-gray above, mottled below, with only a faint chestnut collar. The tail is white with a dark triangle in the center.

This longspur (so named for the hind toe’s elongated claw) requires dry, upland, shortgrass prairie. Historically, chestnut collared longspurs followed both bison and fire. Lightly grazed pasture ground is good for chestnut collared longspurs. Fire and mowing are this bird’s other habitat management friends.

Chestnut-collared longspurs have been restricted to only a few areas of Minnesota, but the birds still do well in both Dakotas, the eastern two-thirds of Montana, and the southern parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

A male chestnut-collared longspur puts on a delightful breeding display, showing off to females with a 30-foot-high flight followed by undulating, descending circles while fluttering wings and singing a melodic warble-trill song similar to a western meadowlark’s. 

Chestnut-collared longspurs nest on the ground in a grass cup lined with animal hair and plant down. The birds feed on the ground, walking in search of insects and grass seeds. They winter in southern Oklahoma, Texas, eastern New Mexico and old Mexico.
 

GRASSHOPPER SPARROW

Ammodramus savannarum

Sparrows can be challenging to positively identify. But some “little brown jobs”—such as the grasshopper sparrow—can be singled out when you see or hear the right things.

Male and female grasshopper sparrows are small (only 4 to 5 inches long), with a clear, non-streaked, buffy-colored breast and dark-rufous, scalloped-looking upper parts. Their crowns sport a cream-colored crown stripe, and their bills are sharp and pointed. The unstreaked chest and belly are unique among prairie sparrows.

Grasshopper sparrows are efficient little hunters, with grasshoppers, bugs, and caterpillars serving as prey. These sparrows are named not for a food they eat but for the sound they make—a high-pitched trill that sounds like a summer grasshopper rubbing leg-on-wing.

Grasshopper sparrows prefer shorter-grass habitat—generally, grass that is less than waist-high, and relatively sparse. That makes pastureland prime. When land converts from grazing to grain, grasshopper sparrows suffer. That, combined with the threat posed by neonicotinoids, has made the grasshopper sparrow another species of greatest conservation need in several states.
 

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH

Carduelis tristis

Sometimes called “wild canary,” male goldfinches in spring and summer sport brilliant yellow plumage contrasted by a handsome black cap and black wings edged in white. Females are olive-colored and washed in softer yellow, but with similar dark wings. The bill is conical, the tail forked. 

Goldfinches inhabit prairies, fallow fields, meadows, CRP habitat, roadsides and most any other kind of open area with tall grass. The goldfinch makes a happy-sounding per-chick-o-ree call in flight or while feeding. An undulating flight pattern with erratic bounces and swoops is designed to discourage and foil chasing predators.

Goldfinches don’t nest until mid- to late-summer. As full-time seed eaters, the birds wait until the year's seed crop is abundant to raise their young. A tiny tightly-woven cups of grass is hidden in a fork in a bush or shrub within or next to open grassland.

Most years, goldfinches inhabit pheasant country full-time. Birds tend to move a state or two south, so everywhere except the far northern reaches of the range have winter birds. In fall and winter, both males and females are olive-drab. 

Pollinator habitat is extremely beneficial to goldfinches. Milkweeds, as well as composites such as sunflowers, coneflowers and rudbeckias, produce abundant seeds that goldfinches flock to.
 

SAVANNAH SPARROW

Passerculus sandwichensis

The Savannah sparrow is probably the most common bird you’ve never heard much about. Numerous subspecies inhabit a variety of open-country habitats across North America. Subspecies inhabit ecosystems as diverse as tidal salt marshes, beach grass systems near oceans, and willow shrubs on the Alaska tundra. Prairie roadsides are important habitat for these extremely adaptable birds.

It’s a good-sized sparrow, about 6 inches long. Savannah sparrows have streaked chests and bellies. Look for a yellow patch above the eye that stretches down to the beak. The crown feathers often flare. Males and females look alike.

Savannah sparrows prefer tallgrass prairie. They also like weedy pastures, forgotten fields and overgrown meadows. Pheasant hunters in autumn can see Savannah sparrows in the thick, mean, weedy-grassy tangles that roosters love. 

Like pheasants, Savannah sparrows are ground foragers and good runners. They are seed eaters, but the birds concentrate on insects for protein when raising young hatched from a cup of grass on the ground. The song is a very high-pitched sip-sip sip-seeeee-tsay.

The spelling of the bird’s name, Savannah with an “h,” is an interesting story. The birds are not named for savanna habitat, as you might think. Rather, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson named them for a specimen collected near Savannah, Georgia, in 1811.


EASTERN KINGBIRD

Tyrannus tyrannus

This handsome grassland flycatcher lives across almost most of the U.S. Kingbirds occupy open country uplands where they perch on utility wires, fence wires, fenceposts and shrubs, waiting for insects to fly past and then launching themselves in a flutter to snatch the prey.

A male eastern kingbird is dark gray above and creamy white below, and sports a spreading, square tail that features a bright white tip in flight. The head is black, with a white chin and throat. The males also has a crown of orange, yellow or red, though it only appears when the bird is displaying aggression. 

The name kingbird comes partially from that crown, but mostly from the bird’s bold, aggressive nature. A kingbird readily harasses and attacks crows, ravens, hawks and owls that enter its territory.

From the Great Plains westward, the western kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) appears. It has a bright yellow belly, tailfeather edged in white rather than tipped with it, and a formidable bill akin to the Eastern’s.

Kingbirds benefit greatly from insect-rich pollinator habitat. The birds arrive in North America in late spring when that insect forage is out and active. Kingbirds survive on the autumn’s last insects, and fruit, as they migrate southward to Central American wintering grounds.
 

YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD 

Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus

A male yellow-headed blackbird is extremely handsome, with bright golden-yellow head; jet-black body, mask and bill; and white wing patches that are especially visible in flight. A female is slightly smaller and more brown than black, with a wash of dull yellow on the throat and chest, and no white wing marks. 

Maybe even more distinctive than the male’s plumage is his song – a hoarse, raspy, multi-note gurgle-buzz that often described as the sound of a rusty door or gate hinge grudgingly swinging open. 

Marshes, sloughs, and wetlands filled with cattails, bulrushes or reeds, next to uplands, make prime yellow-headed blackbird habitat. Unlike red-winged blackbirds, which operate on wetland fringes, yellow-heads often occupy habitat directly over standing water. 

Yellow-heads are primarily an open-country bird, with northern South Dakota and central North Dakota serving as the epicenter of the bird’s summer range, but it lives across the country’s mid-section. 

Yellow-headed blackbirds gather in colonies. A male clings on and swings from sturdy vegetation stems while stooping its head and tail as a breeding display, while singing that squawky song. Hens weave a nest between plant stems, over water. Insects such as dragonflies, beetles, caterpillars, flies, ants and spiders provide protein-rich summer forage. 

Drought, too much water, and wetland drainage can all hurt yellow-headed blackbird populations.
 

LARK BUNTING

Calamospiza melanocorys

This distinctive-looking native sparrow is found nowhere else in the world other than the North American steppe: that huge sweep of Great Plains shortgrass prairie running from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico on up through Kansas and Nebraska into the Dakotas, and over to Montana and Colorado. Sagebrush habitat is key in that western portion.

A male lark bunting in breeding plumage is rich coal-black in color, with bright white wing accents. Females are sandy-brown, with a light streak over the eyes and a flavor of white in the wings. Both males and females have thick, conical blue-gray bills, a good way to tell them apart from other sparrows.

The “lark” part of the name comes from the male’s dancing flight: a quick rise followed by slowly-descending arcs while performing its trilling song.

Lark buntings feed on open ground for insects (primarily grasshoppers), and some biologists believe the believe the birds can survive on the moisture from that forage alone, during dry periods.

By autumn bird-hunting seasons, male lark buntings have morphed into their winter plumage, looking like the drabber females, but the birds are still out there in the far-flung uplands where we hunt sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens and sage grouse.

Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal. He can be found wandering the prairie looking for birds of any kind at any time of year.

PHOTO CREDITS
American Goldfinch - Rick Bohn/USFWS
Bobolink - © Can Stock Photo / sparksphotog
Dickcissel - © Can Stock Photo / sparksphotog
Western Meadowlark - © Can Stock Photo / stevebyland
Chestnut-Collared Longspur - Rick Bohn/USFWS
Yellow-Headed Blackbird - Alex Galt/USFWS
Savannah Sparrow - Lisa Hupp/USFWS
Eastern Kingbird - Tom Koerner/USFWS
Lark Bunting - © Can Stock Photo / birdphotos
Grasshopper Sparrow - © Can Stock Photo / stevebyland