Bird of the Week: Dickcissel

Spiza americana

Content and Photos by James Giroux

Dickcissel, Bobolink, Phoebe, Chickadee, Bobwhite. What do all these birds have in common? They are named for the songs they sing. Listen for “Dick-dick-cissel” in tall North American grasslands in the spring. The Dickcissel is a strange bird, in that it doesn’t fit well in any particular family of birds. From the back, it looks like a sparrow. The beak makes it look like a bunting. The head, neck and chest are colorful like a warbler, meadowlark or oriole. It is currently classified as part of the cardinal family (Cardinalidae), but over the years, it has been a head scratcher for taxonomists.

The Dickcissel spends its winters in Central and South America, and summers in Central North America. It arrives in Central Texas around mid-April, and usually departs in October. Its preferred habitat is tall grasses, and in breeding season the males sing from shrubs or high perches that rise above the grass. A great place to hear and see this bird in Austin is Commons Ford Park.

Photo by James Giroux

Dickcissel numbers for a particular location can be erratic, which means that yearly weather patterns play a role in their choice for nesting locations. They usually place their nests on the ground or near the ground in dense grasses. Their diet consists of seeds and insects.

Commons Ford Park. Photo by James Giroux.

In the fall, just prior to their southward winter migration they sometimes stage in a given area by the thousands. But, in the spring, before they head to North America their staging numbers can be in the millions! Amazing!

Photo by James Giroux.