As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Monday 26 June 2017

Where did the dickcissel get its name? Just as many Pennsylvania birds did: From its song

By Mike Barcaskey For The Times
Jun 16, 2017

I saw a bird this week that reminded me of a day I spent fishing on Raccoon Creek. I was wading the creek, casting small plastic baits for smallmouth bass. I think I was using 4-inch green Senkos that day, and having pretty good luck I might add.

As I fished a stretch of the creek that was bordered by an open field, I caught a glimpse of a bird that immediately piqued my interest. It was a smallish bird, about the size of a house sparrow. In fact, that is what I first thought it was, some type of sparrow. But that wasn’t right, there was too much yellow in the bird’s plumage. So, the rod was set down and the smallmouth momentarily forgotten, as I sneaked my way up into the field. Yellow on a small bird usually gets me thinking warbler, but this bird was working the ground, up out of the weeds and then back down in, probably looking for insects or seeds.

I could see brown and reddish brown on its back with a yellow breast but that wasn’t enough for an ID. Then two more flew out of the weeds in front of me and they both had small black throat patches. That’s what I needed to know, the birds were dickcissels.

The dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird of the fields and prairies of the midwestern United States, more closely related to cardinals than to sparrows. Pennsylvania lies on the eastern edge of its range and the species is a common vagrant to our western counties.

The unusual name comes from the song it makes while perched atop a stout weed or a small tree along a field edge. From its open perch, the bird sings a sharp dick dick dick followed by a buzzed ciss, ciss, ciss. The notes are usually in groups of three.

Many of the more unusual bird names have come from what we humans think their songs sound like. The classic “bird named after its song”, is the whip-poor-will, made famous in folklore and literature. Although not technically a song bird, they will sing endlessly all night long as they are strictly nocturnal. Whip-poor-wills will roost during the day, totally inactive unless disturbed.

The whip-poor-will’s southern cousin, the chuck-will's-widow, sometimes makes it to Pennsylvania, mostly in the southcentral and southeastern counties. It also gets its name from the continuous, repetitive song it sings at night. The song is slower and lower-pitched than that of the whip-poor-will. Another name for the bird is chuckwuts-widow, which also is based on its song.

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