The first Dickcissels returned to the fallow fields along Deming Way in Middleton over the weekend. The birds began their northward journey from Central or South America sometime late March or early April. Now they're here and can be enjoyed and appreciated throughout summer's long days. Some birders identify these particular grassland birds with the end of spring migration. This is the earliest I've recorded them on territory in Dane County, but plenty of other migratory songbirds are still passing through southern Wisconsin; I found over a dozen warbler species at Pheasant Branch this morning, so it isn't over yet!
I've recorded are somewhat sporadic arrival dates for returning Dickcissels for Pheasant Branch Conservancy:
The Dickcissel is a cherished songbird for those of us who know about them in the US, but in some places in South America they're considered agricultural pests or even lunch. In fact, one farmer using toxic pesticides acknowledged killing over a million Dickcissels in just one season. Because Dickcissels roost together in large numbers on their wintering territory, poisoning a nocturnal flock with a crop duster could potentially take out 10-30% of their entire world population. This may account for their sometimes irruptive nature, showing localized declines or increases depending on the level or area of persecution.
There are also threats from agricultural practices on their breeding territories here in the US because Dickcissels tend to be attracted to habitats where they're likely to experience low nesting success from hay-mowing. Sadly, this has been the case for the Deming Way Dickcissels, but the mowing seems to be for keeping the fields groomed in order to attract prospective developers.
Here's how much it has changed in the past 12 years:
Deming Way fields in 2000.
Deming Way fields today.
The marsh on the left is a recent effort of Middleton Public Lands and is a very good thing. This is the area where Marsh Wrens, Sora, and other wetland birds are increasing. Though not pictured, at the present time more buildings are going up at the field on the far right.
This community of grassland birds has been on borrowed time for the past decade because virtually all the property along Deming Way is for sale. Perhaps this parcel of habitat lasted as long as it has is because of our economic woes, but construction along Deming Way has resumed this spring. The sound of progress is drowning out the songs Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds of Deming Way. Pessimistically, in just a few years the voices of the Deming Way grassland birds will be utterly silenced and I'll have to go elsewhere to listen for their return.
Dickcissel © 2012 Mike McDowell