Day of the Dickcissel

midewin sign 2This morning, an hour’s worth of what seems like nothing but bad news of the world has soured my brain. Arriving at Midewin, I switch off the radio. I turn onto Explosives Road and roll down the window. The song of dickcissels fills the air. Heaven. Bliss. Peace. Until I remember that these rare grassland birds are survivors of sometimes mass efforts to poison them in their wintering grounds in Central America. And all the problems of the world seem to come back to roost in my brain.

Midewin is a refuge not only for some of the rarest and most threatened birds in the world. It’s a refuge for me. I like to keep informed about the world. I sign petitions supporting this and protesting that. I volunteer actively in my community. But sometimes, it’s just all too much. In part because I can’t directly do anything about the war in Libya. The war in Afghanistan. In Iraq. The near financial collapse of Greece. Of Portugal. Piracy in Somalia. The head of the IMF caught up on a sleazy sex scandal. China making cyber warfare a priority. Famine. AIDS. Oy.

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However, to recharge my batteries, to have some small direct effect on the world, I can escape to Midewin and clear a small patch of woodland of garlic mustard. Or buckthorn. Collect and clean some native seed. Plant some native plugs in a recovering wet prairie. Or count birds to see how the recovering habitat is helping to reverse drastic population declines among the likes of dickcissels and other grassland birds that would likely disappear from the face of the earth without our help.

I love dickcissels for their namesake “dick, dick, dick, dickcissel” calls, which they make an astounding 5,000 times each day. But even more so for looking like meadowlark Mini Me’s – smaller, but with a similar yellow breast and black bib. They tend to arrive a little later than other grassland birds. Two weeks ago, I counted only 10. Today, I count 35. In truth, there are many more in the 100+ acres I monitor, and many, many more throughout all of Midewin’s 20,000 acres.

dickcissel 3This is good news since the Bird Conservation Network lists dickcissels as a Priority I species, “of high regional importance and also national concern with strong declines and severe threats to breeding.” Their decline is due to a double whammy: disappearing habitat in Illinois and the upper Midwest, and extermination campaigns in their wintering grounds in Venezuela.

An early Illinois ornithologist estimated that dickcissels save Illinois farmers about $56,000 a day (in 2010 dollars) in pesticide costs because of their ferocious feasting on grasshopper nymphs. In Venezuela and Columbia, however, enormous flocks of el pájaro arrocero, or the rice bird, as its known, turn grain eaters and can plague rice and sorghum fields. So much so that many farmers have taken to poisoning them en masse.

dickcissel 2Fortunately, Venezuela Audubon and other groups are working with Central American farmers to help them develop management plans to protect both birds and crops. And here at Midewin, I help to restore the kind of nesting habitat that is rapidly disappearing from our landscape. And one tiny bird reminds us all that our problems and hopes the world over are inextricably connected.