Brian E. Small/Vireo

Dickcissel

Spiza americana

Conservation status Formerly nested commonly along Atlantic seaboard, but disappeared during late 19th century; has reappeared as a breeding bird in the East since the 1920s, but only in small numbers. Overall populations recently have been declining again.
Family Cardinals
Habitat Alfalfa and other fields; meadows, prairies. Originally nested in native prairies and meadows. Today, many nest in fields of alfalfa, clover, timothy, or other crops. In migration, may be found in any kind of grassy or weedy fields.
In the Midwest in summer, male Dickcissels sometimes seem to sing their name from every wire, fencepost, or weed stalk in prairie or farming country. Very erratic in summer occurrence, they may nest in large numbers in an area one year and be totally absent there the next, presumably as a response to rainfall and its effect on habitat. Away from their mid-continent stronghold, migrant Dickcissels are often detected by their electric-buzzer callnote as they fly overhead. Most winter in the tropics, but a few spend the winter at bird feeders in the Northeast, where they usually flock with House Sparrows.
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Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly on the ground and in low vegetation. Except when nesting, usually forages in flocks.


Eggs

4, sometimes 3-5, rarely 2-6. Pale blue, unmarked. Incubation is by female only, about 12-13 days. Young: Nestlings are fed by female only. Young leave the nest about 7-10 days after hatching, are unable to fly for several more days.


Young

Nestlings are fed by female only. Young leave the nest about 7-10 days after hatching, are unable to fly for several more days.

Diet

Mostly insects and seeds. Insects make up majority of diet in early summer; included are many grasshoppers, also crickets, caterpillars, beetles, and many others. At other seasons, may feed mainly on seeds, including those of weeds and grasses, also cultivated grain.


Nesting

In many areas, numbers of nesting Dickcissels are wildly variable from year to year. Males arrive on breeding grounds about a week before females, and sing to defend nesting territory. One male may have more than one mate. Nest site is usually on or near the ground, typically well concealed in dense growth of grass, weeds, alfalfa, clover, or other plants. Sometimes placed in shrub or low tree, up to 6' above ground, exceptionally higher. Nest (built by female) is a bulky open cup made of weeds, grass, leaves, lined with fine grass, rootlets, sometimes animal hair.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Migration

Migrates in flocks, sometimes in flocks of many hundreds. Strays reach both coasts in autumn. Rarely found in our area in winter except in Northeast, where a few may spend the season at bird feeders.

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Migration

Migrates in flocks, sometimes in flocks of many hundreds. Strays reach both coasts in autumn. Rarely found in our area in winter except in Northeast, where a few may spend the season at bird feeders.

Songs and Calls
Song sounds like dick-dick-cissel, the first two notes being sharp sounds followed by a buzzy, almost hissed cissel; repeated over and over again from a conspicuous perch on a fence, bush, or weed. Call a distinctive buzzy note, often given in flight.

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