Tracking New Brunswick’s “Skunk Bird”

Figure 1. Male Bobolinks. Photo by Maxwell Francioni.

APR 13, 2023 — The Bobolink, a species at risk listed as threatened in New Brunswick, is a grassland-nesting bird that spends time on New Brunswick farmlands each year for nesting and breeding. In early summer, male Bobolinks are black with a distinctive yellow nape and white back. By late summer, the males lose this breeding plumage and resemble the females’ tan color with black stripes.

Nature NB had the chance to sit down with Meghan Oliver, a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick currently working with Dr. Joe Nocera on a Bobolink research project.

Figure 2. Meghan Oliver in the field holding a male Bobolink. Photo provided by Meghan Oliver.

Meghan, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? What is your background? How did you get into conservation?

I moved to Fredericton from Ottawa in May of 2022! I did my undergrad degree at Carleton University majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Ecology, Biodiversity, and Conservation. I think I’ve always had an interest in the environment, but my undergrad experience really introduced me to the importance of environmental stewardship and wildlife conservation.

I got into avian conservation–and birds in general–in high school when we took a field trip to a local bird banding station. A couple years later, I had the opportunity to study Song Sparrow populations in Ottawa, and from then on I knew I wanted to pursue a career in ornithology and conservation!

Can you describe the research project you have been working on?

Figure 3. Net system in a field, used to capture Bobolinks. Photo provided by Meghan Oliver.

We’re studying Bobolink dispersal and nest success in the Wolastoq/Saint John River Valley. Bobolink populations are estimated to have declined over 70% within the last 50 years, so we’re really interested in understanding the driving factors of this decline, one of which is mowing and haying activity. Because these birds nest on the ground in hayfields, the nests can be disturbed or destroyed by the machinery.

A common conservation practice is to delay hay harvests until the birds are done breeding, but this isn’t an ideal solution for farmers. As such, we want to know if this management strategy can be refined based on the dispersal patterns and nest success of Bobolinks. Will they fly to nearby fields and renest after disruptions caused by haying? Do the larger environmental factors of the nest site play a big part in nest success?

What are some interesting results that you have seen from your research?

So far, we have mostly observational results. It appears that the birds will stick around their nesting site after haying and form these large post-breeding flocks. We aren’t sure about overall nest success, so that’s something that we’ll be focusing on this upcoming summer.

How do you hope this information is used in the future?

Ultimately, we hope that the findings of this project will be used to inform conservation decisions for the species. Knowing what proportion of Bobolinks disperse during the breeding season may help make population estimates more accurate since these dispersing individuals could be counted multiple times, or other individuals could be missed altogether. The amount of suitable nesting habitat in the Wolastoq/Saint John River Valley is also unknown, so understanding the factors that contribute to nest success can help to identify critical nesting habitat in this region.

Why are bobolinks so special?

Bobolinks are quite a charismatic species! They have a really recognizable song — it sounds very bubbly and robotic (listen here) — and the male’s black plumage really stands out in their habitat. They’re also quite territorial and will fly around and sing if you get too close to the nest. Odds are, if you’ve been around fields and pastures in the summer, you’ve most likely seen or heard them!

These birds have also proven to be great at connecting myself and my field partner with the local community. We needed cooperation from landowners and farmers to have access to their property to conduct our work, and the people we talked to were enthusiastic and excited about the project! They may not have been familiar with the name of the species but would recognize them as the black birds that fly around the fields in the summer. I also really loved that some farmers gave them the nickname “skunk birds”, which is probably a nod to their black and white colouration.

What can the average person do to help bobolink conservation?

Figure 4. Surveying Bobolink in an agriculture field. Photo provided by Meghan Oliver.

If you happen to have nesting Bobolinks on your property, it may be beneficial to delay mowing until July 15th, if possible. At this point, the birds should be done breeding and the risk of disrupting the nests is minimal.

Reporting when and where you see Bobolinks throughout their breeding season (end of May to early August) is also really helpful because
it helps us get a better idea of the current
population in the region! Apps like eBird are great for reporting sightings. If you’re in the Fredericton area and happen to see a Bobolink with a metal band on its leg, you can report that sighting to the North American Bird Banding Program (reportband.gov). It’s very likely that the bird was banded here as part of this research study!

We want to thank Meghan for taking the time to talk to us and answering our questions. If you want to learn more about our conservation work on farms or want to share stories of Bobolink in your area, please reach out to us at info@naturenb.ca.

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