People passionate about nature


Bobolink male singing east of Broomhill, MB, June 11, 2023

“Merrily swinging on briar and weed
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
Hear him call in his merry note,
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink,
Look what a nice new coat is mine;
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee. 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .” 1

Such is the attempt of poet William Cullen Bryant to capture the essence of the Bobolink and its unique, uplifting, bubbly song of metallic notes and whistles wafting above the grasses in a Prairie spring.  It is a song, once heard, not easily forgotten.


How do I recognize it?

Upon arrival, the male Bobolink is visually striking in a jet black coat with bright white shoulders and rump - sometimes described as wearing a tuxedo backwards - and a straw-colored patch on the back of his head.  He utters his exuberant flight song while fluttering up over the fields with rapid, shallow wingbeats in a distinctive, helicopter-like display.  In contrast, the female Bobolink is sometimes mistaken for a large sparrow, with her plain front, dark head stripes, patterned wings and pale, overall golden-buff colouring.  Prior to fall migration, however, Bobolinks undergo a post-breeding moult where the males come to resemble the females.

Bobolink male Bobolink female


Does it migrate?

The Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) is a member of the Blackbird family (Icteridae), and while most Icterids are relatively short-distance migrants, the Bobolink is a champion among North American songbirds with an annual flight of approximately 20,000 km round-trip, one of the longest songbird migrations in the western hemisphere.  With a breeding range covering open areas of the northern US and southern Canada, the Bobolink returns from its wintering grounds in the grasslands of southwestern Brazil, central Paraguay, eastern Bolivia and northern Argentina to appear here in southern Manitoba about the second to third week of May.  Most depart around the beginning of September, with occasional stragglers remaining until the end of the month.

Bobolink male singing on the edge of pasture NW of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, June 17, 2021


Where does it live?

Bobolinks formerly nested in tall and mixed grass prairies, but now often utilize hay, forage and alfalfa fields, meadows and lush pastures in agricultural regions, and the grassy margins of large wetlands, favouring taller vegetation and somewhat wetter areas.  They are gregarious and are often found in loose colonies of up to 20 birds.  The typical nest, built by the female, is very well-hidden on the ground amongst dense grass and contains three to seven eggs.  The nestlings are fed by both parents and leave the nest in about 10-11 days, often before gaining flight ability.  Feeding primarily on insects during the summer, Bobolinks also consume seeds of weeds, grasses and grains, particularly during migration and on their South American wintering grounds where they sometimes invite persecution with damage to local rice crops. Its species name, “oryzivorus,” means “rice eating” in reference to this appetite for rice and other grains.

Bobolink female carrying food for young north of Hartney, MB, July 21, 2012


Where can I see it?

Canada hosts an estimated 26% of the global breeding population, while southern Manitoba boasts one of the greatest areas of breeding density. Fortunately, the Bobolink can still be found in many places with suitable habitat across the southern part of our province, to inspire us with its exuberant, uplifting song and unique attributes.

Some fairly reliable locations include fields of Beaudry Park and Oak Hammock Marsh near Winnipeg, Important Bird Areas including the Southwestern Manitoba Mixed Grass Prairie, Whitewater Lake and Delta Marsh, and Nature Conservancy of Canada properties such as Jiggens Bluff near Oak Lake, the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve and (with prior permission) Fort Ellice to name a few.

Bobolinks in typical habitat in southwestern Manitoba, July 23, 2013


Conservation Status

The Bobolink is currently assessed as Special Concern in Canada by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as of the May 2022 Assessment and Status Report, having been formerly designated as Threatened in April 2010, and currently remains listed as Threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act.  While this change in assessment by COSEWIC is due to a slower rate in population decline than previously calculated, the fact remains Bobolinks are still declining overall, with a 25% population decrease between 2009 and 2019.  The Bobolink is not listed provincially under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act.

As with many declining grassland species, habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation of remaining grassland areas are considered the greatest threats to Bobolink, with expansion and intensification of agricultural crops on both breeding and wintering grounds.  Sadly, their nests and young frequently fall victim to the timing of haying operations where Bobolink attempt to use hay and alfalfa fields for breeding. Overgrazing of pastures also has an impact on their nesting success.  Mortality from pesticide exposure, especially on wintering grounds, occurs and Bobolink are sometimes intentionally poisoned or otherwise targeted in some regions during migration and on wintering grounds where they are considered a pest in rice crops.

Bobolink male on pasture fence south of Deloraine, MB, June 16, 2021


Did you know?

Bobolinks are one of only a few species that undergo two complete moults per year, believed to be owing to their time moving through environments with abrasive vegetation that cause significant feather wear and tear.  Bobolinks completely change all their feathers on both the breeding and wintering grounds.

All photos by Katharine Schulz

Written by Katharine Schulz

1   Accessed April 16, 2024