Spiza americana
Range Map

Truly a bird of the American Heartland, the Dickcissel loves to nest in short grass scrubland, but they’ve proved adaptable to variations of this type of habitat. In summer, we find them primarily breeding in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, but these birds can wander many hundreds of miles beyond this range when conditions require it.

When not breeding, Dickcissels often gather in vast flocks, often numbering in the millions. In winter, they head south to southern Mexico, Central and South America, where they feed on seeds and remain in large groups.

Science seems confused about the ancestry of the Dickcissel. Once classified as a sparrow, a finch, and even a relative of orioles and blackbirds. Today, we place them in the cardinal clan (Cardinalidae). In 1824, none other than Charles Lucien Bonaparte introduced the genus Spiza. The Dickcissel is the only living member of this genus, and there are no subspecies recognised (i.e. they are monotypic).

Studies show a 1.5% per year decline in population in the upper Mid-Western USA since 1966. The most likely culprit is habitat loss from agricultural development.

Until I visited South Padre Island (Texas) for the spring migration in 2021, I’d never met a Dickcissel. One day I’d like to see them in those large flocks I’ve read about. Early in 2022, I embarked on an eight-month expedition that included much of the western USA, western Canada, and the American Mid-West. When I crossed through Nebraska in July, I finally met these birds in their breeding territory. I’ve yet to witness those massive flocks I’ve read about.

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