Friday, November 11, 2016


Rare Fall Visitor (Spiza americana)

Dickcissel Adult Female [Carmella Melanson Photo]
The Dickcissel is a rare fall visitor to New Brunswick.  In ornithology parlance it is a 'vagrant' which means it has wandered beyond its normal range.  A few usually show up here in the fall as singles or sometimes in small groups.  It is very unusual for them to be here in spring or summer.  Right now there are at least two individuals in the Saint John area.  The photo above shows a female taken in Grand Manan.

The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird about the same size as a House Sparrow.  In fact, they often hang out with House or other sparrows.  They readily come to feeders in this area but on their normal range they are birds of fields and meadows where they feed on seeds, grasses, and insects.  In summer their normal range is the central US from eastern Montana and the Great Lakes region south to Texas and the Gulf coast.  They winter from southern Mexico into South America.  When preparing for migration they often gather in large flocks sometimes in the thousands.  On the wintering grounds their roosts can number into the millions of birds. 

Dickcissel Juveniles
The male Dickcissel in breeding plumage is very showy with a black bib, white chin, yellow eyebrow, and yellow breast (sorry, no photo).  His back is grayish brown and patterned.  His wings have a bright chestnut shoulder patch.  The female is more muted and lacks the black bib or she may have remnants of it.  The yellow eyebrow of the male is duller in the female and it is often a buffy colour behind the eye.  Juveniles are more like the female and have fine streaking on the breast and flanks.  They also do not have the chestnut shoulder patch.  

Dickcissel Juvenile

Dickcissel Female
Dickcissel Female
The Dickcissel in the two photos shown above is feeding in a coarsely-wired cage placed on the ground designed to allow small birds to enter so they can feed away from larger dominant birds like Starlings and Grackles.  It is a good device which makes it so all species can get to the food.  

The Dickcissel nests on or near the ground.  The nest is made of plant stems and grass and the 3 to 5 eggs are pale blue.  All the work related to nest-building, incubation and the rearing of young is done by the female only.  The unusual name of this species comes from its song which is lustily sung by the male from the top of a bush or post.  He says something similar to 'dick dick ciss ciss'.    

The first Dickcissel ever recorded in New Brunswick was in 1951 from Machias Seal Island.  We have had a lot of them since then.  Perhaps you will have one at your feeder this fall.  Keep a close eye on the ground under your feeders!

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