The dickcissel is a wanderer, appearing in large numbers at a breeding ground one year and totally absent the next.
Wandering Bird Migrates in Massive Flocks
The dickcissel is named for its call, which sounds like “dick-dick-cissel.” Well-adapted to inhabiting the agricultural landscape, the bird can currently be found in hayfields, fallow fields, weedy ditches, and grasslands from the Great Lakes to the Gulf States, wintering in northern South America. The dickcissel is a wanderer, appearing in large numbers at a breeding ground one year and totally absent the next. It is thought to have originally occupied the prairies of the Great Plains, then moved east in the 19th century, following deforestation. Atlantic coastal plain populations disappeared later that century, but small numbers are reoccupying the range.
Dickcissels spend much of their time close to the earth, frequently nesting on the ground and feeding on seeds, grain, spiders and insects like grasshoppers and crickets. When they take to the air en masse, they migrate in large flocks, sometimes hundreds of birds at a time. In their winter range, they are even more sociable, sometimes gathering in a flock of more than a million birds on the llanos of Venezuela, where they are widely regarded as agricultural pests.
It is on their winter range that dickcissels face their most grave challenge. Farmers are known to poison flocks to avert agricultural destruction. Since they gather in such large numbers, wide-spread poisoning can affect the entire population. In North America, the bird is challenged by nest parasitism by cowbirds, loss of habitat resulting from changes in land use, and destruction of nests by mowing equipment.