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Bobolink
Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Order
PASSERIFORMES
– Family
ICTERIDAE
Authors: Martin, Stephen G., and Thomas A. Gavin

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Introduction

Bobolink, male, Ithaca NY, June
Bobolink, female, Ithaca NY, June
Figure 1. Breeding range of the Bobolink.
Figure 2. Principal winter range of the Bobolink.

This species account is dedicated in honor of Wendy Paulson, member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.


The Bobolink is one of the most visually striking passerines in North America. Males—conspicuous morphologically, behaviorally, and vocally during the breeding season—look like they are wearing a tuxedo backward, leading some observers to refer to this species as the “skunk blackbird.” Male Bobolinks sing a long, bubbly song, often while flying low over their territories in a characteristic, helicopter-like flight. This sight was certainly the inspiration for the insightful, amusing, and onomatopoeic poem “Robert of Lincoln,” written by the nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant.

The Bobolink is polygynous and was one of the first species in which multiple paternity (females laying a clutch of eggs sired by more than one male) was documented. In addition, this North American breeder is an extraordinary migrant, traveling to south of the equator each autumn and making a round-trip of approximately 20,000 kilometers. One female known to be at least nine years old presumably made this trip annually, a total distance equal to traveling 4.5 times around the earth at the equator! Why these birds make such an arduous journey each year is not as well understood as how they do it; the mechanisms of orientation and navigation in this species have been rigorously studied by several investigators. Magnetic clues appear to be particularly important for migrating Bobolinks.

Bobolinks have been shot as agricultural pests in the southern United States, trapped and sold as pets in Argentina, and collected as food in Jamaica. The species is not as abundant as it was several decades ago, primarily because of changing land-use practices, especially the decline of meadows and hay fields. The Bobolink’s tenacity and adaptability, however, should continue to serve it well.