This delightful, and unusual bird showed up in my yard last week at my bird feeders. It is a Dickcissel, a name that unfortunately revs the purient thinking of the twelve year old boy latent in most grown men. No offense, anyone, but we did all go there, didn't we? Your answer is probably best kept between you and your god.
The Dickcissel gets its name from its flight call, described by some as like a 'raspberry,' or Bronx cheer. You know - that sound you can make by putting your mouth to the inside of your elbow, sealing your lips to your skin and blowing. I've known people in my life who could put one hand under an armpit and squeeze air out making the buzzing sound that Dickcissels make. That was long before I knew about Dickcissels, but the talent always deeply impressed me. Within the next twenty-four hours, when you are in the privacy of your own homes, I'm betting that you will try that out, too. If you choose to do it in public, I can assure you that we women will be paying more attention to you now than when you were in Junior High School. And, you may attract some birds, as well. Dickcissels do have a song, a simple, dry, "dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" and a call that's a dry, single "chek."
Dickcissels are not common in Maine, though a fair number have been sighted this year, many of them along the coast. Their breeding habitat is fields in Midwestern North America. They migrate in large flocks to southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. They do occur as vagrants well outside of their normal range which is how they happen to be here. They forage on the ground mainly eating insects and seeds. Outside of the nesting season, they usually feed in flocks. They are considered a pest by farmers in some regions because flocks can consume large quantities of cultivated grains. In Venezuela where they winter, farmers poison them.
They nest near the ground in dense grasses or small shrubs, or up to 3–4 ft high in bushes and trees. The one I photographed at our house was eating on spillage from feeders and did not fly higher up than ten feet into the shrubs. Males may have up to six mates, with most attracting only one or two, and several failing to attract any mates at all. If only they had known about blowing a fart sound on the inside of their elbow, their averages might be better. If these "bachelors" survive until the following summer, they will get another try to attract females, as the partners only stay together for raising one brood. Dickcissels are thus one of the few songbirds that are truly polygamous. When they leave for the winter what little pair bond existed during the summer is broken up. In preparation for fall migration, Dickcissels begin assembling in larger and larger flocks that gradually coalesce into flocks of thousands. Winter roosts can number into the millions of birds.
Nearly all Dickcissels winter far south of their breeding range. But, individual Dickcissels frequently turn up far from the normal range, often joining in with House Sparrow flocks. This fellow in my photos was, in fact with a mixed flock of sparrows, mostly Swamp and White-throated.
I first noticed this bird, while still in bed. I can see a feeder from there and I have binoculars at my bedside. When I got up for a closer look, of course it was gone. I wasn't sure if what I had seen was the Dickcissel I surmised or not, as I had never seen one before (Though technically, I was wearing less than a bathrobe, I am still counting this as a Bathrobe Birding event). Later in the day, while working around my yard, I heard its unique farting sound. Ruling out my husband, I was able to find the bird in the shrubs. I was over the moon ecstatic!
The problem for me with seeing unusual birds or simply ones that are totally new to me is that I always want more. I can imagine what it must be like for a crack addict to be Jonesing for a fix. After seeing the Dickcissel, I kept hoping it would come back, looked for it over and over and listened to every sound in the woods and air. But it did not come back. Neuro chemically, I was awash in 'gotta-have-it" juices. Just when I thought it was over and I was calming down; I heard it: some unusual sound in the trees. I grabbed my camera and began sneaking around in the bushes, hoping against hope, my heart pounding, my hands trembling. But, alas, it was just a tricky crow mimicking something, perhaps indeed the Dickcissel. Crows can be very clever with their mimicry and more than once have sent me hunting in vane for a rarer bird than they. They have, indeed, flung me into "the crows of passion."