The Dickcissel is an abundant breeder of the prairie grasslands with a range extending from Oklahoma/Kansas/Nebraska in the west to Ohio and southern Pennsylvania in the east. Furthermore, there are numerous records from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, though mainly during the fall. It is no real surprise then, as the tall grass portion of the Seneca Meadows Preserve in northern Seneca County NY matures, to read recent reports of Dickcissel there. It is possible that the drought in their core breeding range has forced some to move outward in search of more favorable conditions for nesting.* At least two males and one female (the latter apparently carrying nest material) have been seen just off the Oak Pass Trail. The males have been singing a large portion of the day, perched up on the tallest flower stalks and even from the top of a mature oak.
The opportunity of recording these uncommon, nearby birds was too good to pass up, and I recently spent a few hours documenting the male vocalizations. Dickcissels are not known to have a “dawn song”, but I noticed that the rate of singing (the number of songs per minute) was significantly higher at first light and then slowed down by about a third for the rest of the morning. Here is an example of song at 5 am:
Dickcissel song, 7 July 2012 4:55 am Seneca Meadows Preserve Seneca Co NY. Recorded by Bob McGuire.
Here is the same bird singing an hour later:
Dickcissel song, 7 July 2012 5:58 am Seneca Meadows Preserve Seneca Co NY. Recorded by Bob McGuire.
And there is another interesting thing: while Dickcissels are reported not to have subspecies,* both Seneca Meadows birds sang the same song, and it differed significantly from recordings we have of more western birds. Here are examples of songs from Oklahoma, Kansas, and two from Missouri.
Four Dickcissel song types from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Missouri.
While all these songs are clearly identifiable as Dickcissels (at least to the practiced ear), there is obviously a lot of variation. Perhaps they are regional dialects. All of this leaves me wondering, where did the Seneca Meadows birds come from? Most likely from Ohio or southern Pennsylvania. If that is true, then what does a Dickcissel from Ohio or southern Pennsylvania sound like?
* Temple, Stanley A. 2002. Dickcissel (Spiza americana), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology