Bison Bird?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks of Romeo. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I can’t attest to how a cattle egret might smell, but no matter which of several common names you call Bubulcus ibis, it is one sweet bird.

Its common name in North America is cattle egret. This picture I took at Midewin today provides pretty good evidence why. They feast on insects stirred up by grazing animals, frequently perching on their backs as they await a meal.

This is probably a trick – or adaptation – they learned in Africa, where the species originated. There, cattle egrets are known as elephant birds, or rhinoceros egrets or hippopotamus egrets. Their arabic name, Abu Querdan, means father of ticks, a name given in the misbelief that this species pick ticks off the backs of its grazing herbivores.

In Europe, cattle egrets are known as buff-backed herons for the patches of buff color on their backsides (not to mention their bellies and their head crests.) This – in addition to their smaller size – is one of the easiest ways of distinguishing them from great egrets, also present at Midewin.

Great egrets are larger than cattle egrets, and lack their buffy markings.

Cattle egrets are not all that common at Midewin. According to ebird, the first one was sighted there in 1996. I first glimpsed one in 2011, and then not again until today.

There are quite a few cattle at Midewin. At least for now. Cattle are a kind of stop gap measure until Midewin can be fully restored. Rather than let the former ag and arsenal lands go fallow, grazed pasturelands actually provide pretty good grassland bird habitat – a major management objective at Midewin. Additionally, pasture leases provide additional income that gets channeled back into restoration.

Dickcissels are among the grassland bird species that benefit from grazed pasturelands.

One day, once all the land is restored and the cattle leases expired, will Midewin’s cattle egrets adapt to become bison birds? As a species, cattle egrets did not co-evolve with American bison. Native to Africa, cattle egrets managed to find their way to South America in 1877, and then worked their way northward to the United States by 1941 – long after the storied bison herds of the 1800s had been eliminated.

A quick Google search already reveals that cattle egrets are adopting to bison just fine elsewhere. After all, how hard can it be to ride a bison once you’ve mastered elephants, rhinos, hippos, and bare-backed moo-cows?

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.

Grassland Symphony

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Tract 104 at Midewin. Once again, looks can be deceiving. To most people, this field might seem nothing but a cow pasture. OK, it is a cow pasture. But it’s also a haven for some of the most imperiled birds on the planet.

cattleUntil such time as Midewin’s 20,000 acres can be restored to native prairie, cattle sort of play the historic role of bison. They graze a fair portion of the site – including Tract 104 – which keeps weeds at bay and helps maintain the kind of vegetative structure that grassland birds require for their very survival.meadowlark

Today, at 7:45 a.m., under a bright, clear sky, the air is filled with flashes of color and a true symphony of bird song. Their yellow breasts ablaze in the early slant of light, eastern meadowlarks are the first violins – their clear-voiced calls providing the main melody.dickcissel

Keeping time are the dickcissels – for all the world looking like meadowlark mini-me’s – with their two-tone “one-two-three, one-two-three” calls.

Playing second fiddle in both color and song are grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, their drab plumage reflective of their understated insect-like buzzes (grasshopper sparrows) and sybillant “tsi-licks” (Henslow’s.)

henslows sparrow


Upland sandpipers – an Illinois state-endangered species – add a bit of humorous counterpoint with their wolf-call whistles.

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Red-winged blackbirds seem to me better suited to a marching band than a symphony with their scarlet epaulets and brash, ratchety solos. But they’re present in large numbers.



Killdeers – more of a shorebird, but frequently present in wet prairies – cry like piping piccolos when flushed from the grasses.

Perhaps the most appropriately dressed bird for the natural symphony is the bobolink, which has been described as “wearing a tuxedo backwards.” It’s song, however, is the most difficult to describe. I’ve heard it likened to the charming chatter of the Star Wars droid R2D2. For my money, Thoreau was closer with “It is as if he touched his harp with a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the strings…away he launches, and the meadow is all bespattered with melody.”

bobolink 3

Statewide, the population of bobolinks has declined by 95 percent. At Midewin this morning, they are by far the most numerous among all the grassland birds present. During my two and a half hour circuit, I count 137. And 51 red-winged blackbirds, 39 eastern meadowlarks, 28 grasshopper sparrows, 10 dickcissels, four Henslow’s sparrows, one state-endangered upland sandpiper, and scores of dozens of other species.

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That’s my volunteer job for the day. To count birds. There’s still a long way to go to return 20,000 acres to native habitat. But if this morning’s songbird symphony is any indication – and it is – even now Midewin may be the most vital cow pasture, er, grassland bird sanctuary, in the state.