Bobolinks: The Poets’ “Rowdy” Bird

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

Want a good laugh? In May or June, head for the nearest extensive hay field and look for a bird with “upside-down” plumage of black below with patches of white and buffy yellow above. (Most birds are colored dark above and lighter below.) Watch and listen for such a bird to sing, while fluttering above the grass, a burbling, gurgling, inimitable, several-seconds-long cascade of song. This creature, in clownish plumage performing his clownish song, is the male bobolink.

The bobolink’s populations, like those of other grassland birds, have changed considerably with shifting land use. European settlement was a boon for this species due to extensive land clearing, and mid-19th century residents here—including some of our well-known literary figures—commonly saw the display I’ve just described. Cummington poet William Cullen Bryant gave a detailed description of the song and breeding of bobolinks in his poem “Robert of Lincoln.” This is the second stanza:

Robert of Lincoln is gayly dressed, Wearing a bright black wedding-coat;
White are his shoulders and white his crest Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link, Spink, spank, spink;
Look, what a nice coat is mine. Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

Emily Dickinson mentioned bobolinks—in her words “the rowdy of the meadow” in “impudent habiliment”— in about a dozen of her poems. Here is one of them.

The Bobolink is gone –
The Rowdy of the Meadow –
And no one swaggers now but me – The Presbyterian Birds
Can now resume the Meeting
He boldly interrupted that overflowing Day When supplicating mercy
In a portentous way
He swung upon the Decalogue And shouted let us pray –

(If you visit the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, look across Main Street and try to imagine the hay fields and bobolinks that Dickinson saw there.)

Now, with much New England farmland either reverting to forest or being built up, and with remaining hay fields mowed two or three times per season rather than once, bobolinks are less abundant than a century and a half ago. Fortunately, there are still fields in our area where they are common. Authors are less likely to look out their windows and see bobolinks each spring, but the birds still make the occasional literary appearance. For example, Joyce Hinnefeld’s bird-infused novel In Hovering Flight, partly written in the Connecticut Valley, takes its title from a field guide description of the bobolink’s aerial singing.

A careful study of a meadow with displaying male bobolinks can provide occasional glimpses of the Bryant’s “modest and shy” female that resembles a large, pale, grassland sparrow. She is all business, with no amusing antics. The male, too, of course, is all business, with his plumage, song, and display suited to attracting females—not to amusing us. The humor and clownishness we see is our perception, not hers.

After the summer solstice, as breeding winds down, the male bobolink molts into relatively drab plumage, similar to that of the female. The entire population leaves the north in late summer and stops in grain fields of the southern states en route to the pampas of South America, the birds’ non-breeding home. Along the migration route and at its southern end, the bobolink is known as an agricultural pest. (“Rice bird” is one well-earned folk name for bobolinks because they can cause great damage to that crop.) Literary references to the bobolink in those climes are few and rarely complimentary.

Here in the Northeast, the bobolink’s annual visit doesn’t coincide with the maturation of grain crops, and its breeding-season diet of insects and weed seeds might be slightly beneficial for farmers. So it’s not surprising that the bird is looked on, and written about, with some fondness. In a poem about the American robin, Dickinson made the point that people, whether the Queen of England or an Amherst poet, perceive nature based on their local experience. She saw nature, in her coinage, “New Englandly.” For those of us who live here, seeing, hearing and enjoying these breeding bobolinks is New Englandly indeed.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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