The Disappearance of the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) from the Mid-Atlantic States

The dickcissel is a cyclically abundant grassland bird that spends its summers in North America and flies to South America during winter.  They feed upon grass seeds, though they give their young high protein insects in spring.  Their nests are hidden in tall grass.  Dickcissels are found associated with other grassland species of birds such as meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, vesper sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, and savannah sparrows.  Dickcissels prefer clover and alfalfa pastures and old abandoned fields, but they don’t like suburban habitat.  The heart of dickcissel range is the agricultural Midwest.  Migrating stragglers may occur on the Atlantic coast today, but mysteriously, large breeding populations of dickcissels invaded the mid-Atlantic during the middle of the 19th century and just as mysteriously they disappeared from this part of their range by 1900.  Maybe farmers in this region planted more corn and less wheat and clover fields.  Corn rows don’t offer usable habitat for dickcissels.

Summer range map of the dickcissel.  It breeds in the dark red area but vagrants are found within the dotted lines.  They formerly bred in the mid-Atlantic states from South Carolina to Massachusetts.  Stragglers migrate south along the Atlantic coast.

Image result for Spiza americana

A pair of dickcissels.  They are a type of finch.

Dickcissels likely were cyclically abundant during the Pleistocene as well with widely changing geographic ranges.  Studies show dickcissels are eliminated from ranges that are burned, and their numbers decline in areas where bison graze.  This suggests they bred on grasslands temporarily abandoned by grazing megafauna herds and left untouched by fire for at least a year.  Lightning-ignited wild fires were less frequent during colder climate phases of Ice Ages.

As far as I can determine, dickcissel remains have been excavated from only 1 Pleistocene-aged fossil site–Little Box Elder Cave in Wyoming, a site just outside the periphery of their modern day range.  (Little Box Elder deserves a blog entry of its own.  Remains of at least 62 mammalian species were recovered here including horse and the only known association of grizzly and short-faced bears south of the former ice sheet.)  Although dickcissels are known from just this 1 fossil site, they may have been common during some climatic stages of the Pleistocene.  I believe they are rare in the fossil records because they inhabit open grassy areas where their remains are not likely to be preserved.

Little is known abut the dickcissel’s past.  Scientists could use genetic analysis to determine historic and pre-historic population dynamics and their evolutionary relationships to other members of the Cardinalidae family which includes cardinals, grosbeaks, finches, and buntings.  Maybe some day, they will be able to explain why the dickcissel disappeared from mid-Atlantic sites.

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3 Responses to “The Disappearance of the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) from the Mid-Atlantic States”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    As usual..thanks much for interesting commentary..as to the history-rich..areas you/others..study/investigate. Pulls our minds..outward..to troll in the ..wake..of the known..and the..yet to be discovered. ina

  2. Tripsacum Says:

    I disagree with your statement regarding dickcissels being ‘eliminated’ in areas that are burned, even for a single year. We manage native grasslands in Texas by various means, including prescribed fires, and the abundance of dickcissels is not dissuaded from these lands following fire. As soon as sufficient vegetative biomass is available following burns, the birds return to nest and breed in diverse native grasslands. I cannot attest to the response of the species to agricultural fields.

    • markgelbart Says:

      I apologize for being too lazy to attach my reference to this blog article. According to this study, dickcissels are among many other grassland species that are reduced or eliminated for at least 1 breeding season following fire.

      Powell, Alexis
      “Effects of Prescribed Burns and Bison (Bos bison) Grazing on Breeding Bird Abundances in Tallgrass Prairie”
      The Auk 123 2006

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