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dickcissel / dickie-bird

A seed and insect semi-nomadic finch (Spiza americana) primarily found in the Great Plains and prairies of North America in mating season, but winters in the tropics.. — Webster, 1882

“Dickie, dickie! …Dickie-bird!” – Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 4, “Prairie Day”
dickcisselSometimes called the “black-throated bunting” or the “little field lark,” the dickcissel isn’t really a lark, but a finch (Spiza americana). From its winter home in Central and South America, they arrive in the United States typically in April, passing through the Mississippi Valley on their way to Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska; their range is constantly shifting about. At one time, dickcissels were more numerous than almost any other bird, but their numbers went through a sharp decline during the homesteading years, and while populations have stabilized, they have not recovered. As their numbers declined, so did their range; dickcissels have all but abandoned the east coast where they were one regular visitors.

Dickcissels, or “dickie-birds” of the southeast Kansas prairie of Little House on the Prairie, are feathered in browns, blacks, yellows, and white. Males have a yellow breast and black throat markings (missing in the female); both have whitish underparts. Females have white throats streaked with brown, and the yellow on their breasts is muted and streaked with brown. They are similar in appearance to the meadowlark but are much smaller in size, no more than six inches from beak to tip of the tail.

The dickcissel’s song is short and simple (“dick dick cissel cissel”), even considered weak, and it grows monotonous when young birds are in the nest, because the male perches on a grass stem close by (the nests are messy grass cups on the ground or in clumps of weeds) and continuously warns other birds to stay away. Males no doubt are just boasting, since they can mate with 8 or more females in a season. Eggs are pale blue, and usually four or five are laid in a season. The eggs are a little over a half inch in length. To hear the song of the dickcissel, click HERE (South Dakota Birds and Birding site).

If the Ingallses heard dickcissels upon their arrival in Indian Territory, and those dickcissels were nesting, it pretty much puts a time-stamp on it as being from June to August, with August being quite late even for a second hatch of the season. Eggs are incubated for 12 to 15 days, and the fledglings remain in the nest for an average of 26 days. Females feed the fledglings in the vicinity of the nest for about two more weeks, so 50-54 days are needed for each hatching, and females sometimes attempt two broods per year. The Ingallses most likely settled in Kansas in September or October, as they were in Chariton County, Missouri, on August 26, 1869, when Charles Ingalls signed a Power of Attorney there.

Laura Ingalls Wilder may have mentioned dickcissel nests in Little House on the Prairie, but there were no nests mentioned in any of the existing drafts, just birds. Although Mary and Laura are said to touch nests they find in the grass, and those nests are full of hungry babies (see Chapter 10), there’s no suggestion that these nests belong to dickcissels. Note that the dickie-birds are still everywhere when Laura and Mary go with Pa to get mud for the fireplace, and this is before cold weather sets in and dickcissels would have headed south. This would suggest that there may have been abandoned nests, and the dickcissels were leaving the area justas the Ingallses arrived.

Dickcissel. dickcissel

The dickcissel formerly raised its broods over a considerable portion of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, but two or three decades ago it abandoned the Eastern States and now rarely breeds east of the Allegheny Mountains. In autumn it migrates to Central and South America. In some localities it is known as the little meadowlark, because its coloring is like that of the meadowlark, even to the black locket on the breast of brilliant yellow. Most sparrows are gregarious, but dickcissels move about in pairs or little family groups. In many places they are so numerous that a score of individuals may be found in every hayfield and meadow; and the species is characteristic of such localities as the robin is of the New England lawn, or the mocking bird of the Florida plantation. The song consists of a series of monotonous insect notes, repeated incessantly from early morn till late afternoon, resembling somewhat the heat-suggestive tones of the grasshopper. The nest is placed on the ground, and the eggs are pale blue, and might easily be mistaken for those of the bluebird.

In food habitats the dickcissel is particularly interesting. one hundred and fifty-two stomachs have been examined, collected, however, only during the somewhat limited period from May to August. The winter food is, therefore, not shown by these examinations, but during the winter season the bird feeds on grass seed and weed seed. Most of the stomachs examined in the laboratory were collected in Kansas. They contained animal matter to the extent of 70 percent (insects, with a few spiders) and vegetable matter to the extent of 30 percent, practically all seeds. The vegetable part of the food is probably not as creditable as it would have been had the stomachs been collected from more widely separated localities. Most of them were obtained from a certain part of Kansas where there were large millet fields, and naturally the birds helped themselves plentifully to this abundant supply of food.

As a destroyer of grasshoppers, the dickcissel excels. From July to August, half of its diet consists of grasshoppers and crickets. It will be found especially helpful in keeping down grasshoppers, which always threaten to become over-abundant and cause great destruction among crops. — S.D. Judd and C.H. Merriam, The Relation of Sparrows to Agriculture (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), 91-92.


dickcissel / dickie-bird (LHP 4, 9)