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Birds of the St. Croix River Valley: Minnesota and Wisconsin

FAMILY ICTERIDAE

Meadowlarks, Blackbirds, and Orioles


Bobolink -- Eastern Meadowlark -- Western Meadowlark -- Yellow-headed Blackbird -- Red-winged Blackbird -- Orchard Oriole -- Northern Oriole -- Rusty Blackbird -- Brewer's Blackbird -- Common Grackle -- Brown-headed Cowbird

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species.

Migration: Common to locally abundant migrant in Western Upland and Central Plain, uncommon and local in the Northern Highland. Spring migrants arrive 25 April to 1 May, reaching northern areas by 10 May. Peak spring migration occurs 10-20 May. Fall migration begins in late July in the Northern Highland and 10-15 August elsewhere. Peak abundance occurs 20-30 August and departure from the Northern Highland by 20 August and 15 September elsewhere.

Nesting Season Distribution: Common to locally abundant nesting species in Western Upland and Central Plain. Rare to uncommon and local in the Northern Highland. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) indicate that a uniformly large breeding population occurs in the Western Upland and Central Plain. Documented breeding records exist for Pierce, St. Croix, and Polk counties. There are inferred breeding records for the remainder of the region. In Douglas County, Bernard (1967) referred to the bobolink as a "common summer resident." Jackson (1943) found this species to be "distributed . . . where meadow environment suitable for them prevails"; however, he provided no data for the Valley.

Habitat: Characteristic species of grassland communities including retired cropland, alfalfa fields, tame pasture, Managed Grasslands, and remnant prairies. Occasionally found using Northern Sedge Meadow and Shrub Carr; however, these habitats apparently receive higher use during migration.


Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species, casual in winter.

Migration: Fairly common migrant east of the St. Croix River, uncommon west of the river. Spring migrants arrive 5-15 March, reaching peak abundance 1-15 April. Fall migration begins in early September in the Northern Highland and by 10 September elsewhere. Peak abundance occurs 25 September to 15 October and departure by 1 November.

Nesting Season Distribution: Fairly common nesting species throughout the Valley; most numerous in eastern segments of the Western Upland and Central Plain. Documented nesting records exist from St. Croix and Pierce counties. The eastern meadowlark probably nests in the remainder of the Valley. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) demonstrate a marked increase in relative abundance moving eastward from the St. Croix River. These population indices range from an average of 3.4 per year on the Hudson BBS (St. Croix County), to 22.7 per year on the Loraine BBS (Polk County).

Table 7. Mean number of bobolinks, meadowlarks, and blackbirds recorded on western Wisconsin Breeding Bird Survey transects, 1966-78.

 
Western Upland
Central Plain
Northern Highland
Species
Hudson
Dresser
Loraine
Union
Minong
Bobolink
31.0
30.7
37.0
0.1
0.5
Eastern meadowlark
3.4
10.7
22.7
0.0
0.4
Western meadowlark
133.7
73.7
32.2
0.1
0.2
Yellow-headed blackbird
4.1
3.4
1.2
0.1
0.5
Red-winged blackbird
50.0
184.4
203.2
8.7
36.0
Northern oriole
7.3
16.3
12.2
3.7
8.3
Brewer's blackbird
0.0
0.6
1.7
0.2
2.7
Common grackle
43.8
84.6
61.2
0.4
10.5
Brown-headed cowbird
11.2
36.1
33.5
24.4
37.9

Winter: Several winter records exist for this species, primarily from Washington County. These records include one on the St. Paul Suburban CBC 30 December 1961 and two on this count 30 December 1972. There are two winter records from Wisconsin: three birds that I netted on 16 January 1975 in Pierce County and one bird near Deronda, Polk County, during the 1947-48 winter (Robbins 1948b).

Habitat: Eastern meadowlarks occupy a variety of grassland habitats including domestic hayfields, retired croplands, remnants of oak savannah habitats, overgrazed pasture, Old Field Communities, and drier portions of Shrub Carr wetlands.


Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

Status: Regular migrant, nesting species, and winter resident.

Migration: Common to abundant migrant in the Western Upland and Central Plain, fairly common in the Northern Highland. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland 5-10 March and reach the Northern Highland 25 March to 5 April. Peak abundance occurs 25 March to 15 April. Fall migration begins in mid-August in the Northern Highland and by 1 September elsewhere. Peak abundance occurs 20 September to 20 October and departure by 1 November; occasional stragglers remain to 1 December.

Nesting Season Distribution: Common to locally abundant breeding species in all regions. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) demonstrate a marked increase in relative abundance westward through the Valley. Average numbers recorded per route range from < 1 in Douglas County (Minong BBS) and 32.2 in Polk County (Loraine BBS) to 133.7 in St. Croix County (Hudson BBS). This trend in breeding population distribution is the reverse of the eastern meadowlark.

Winter: Meadowlarks are fairly regular during winter months in the Western Upland. Many of these records are probably referable to western meadowlark; however, plumages are similar to the eastern meadowlark which, confounds identification.

Habitat: Highest density breeding populations occur in retired croplands and Managed Grasslands where characteristic vegetation includes timothy, brome grass, quack grass, and intermediate wheat grass. Nesting western meadowlarks also use heavily grazed pastures, Hayland, remnant prairie associated with oak savannah, and Old Field Communities. In the Central Plain and Northern Highland, nesting pairs occasionally occupy drier portions of Northern Sedge Meadow.


Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species.

Migration: Fairly common (locally common) migrant in the Western Upland, uncommon and local in the Central Plain, and rare in the Northern Highland. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland about 15 April, reaching the Northern Highland by 1 May. Peak spring abundance occurs 1-15 May and nonbreeding birds depart by 20 May. Fall migration begins with dispersal from breeding marshes and the formation of loose flocks in late July. Peak fall abundance occurs 15 August to 1 September and departure by 30 September (latest-9 October 1966, Washington County).

Nesting Season Distribution: Common to locally abundant breeding bird in central St. Croix, Washington, and southern Polk counties. I conducted a census of breeding yellow-headed blackbirds in 1975 and found over 1,000 pairs in central St. Croix County; a 1977 census yielded fewer than 500 pairs. The difference was attributed to persistent drought conditions. Documented breeding records exist for St. Croix, Washington, Polk, and Burnett counties. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) suggest that the largest breeding populations occur in the Western Upland. An isolated breeding population exists at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, Burnett County. Ellarson (1950) reported two additional colonies in Burnett County in 1948 and 1949 which were still occupied in 1977. Green and Janssen (1975) stated that this species is absent from "much of Pine County."

Habitat: Characteristic nesting species of deep semipermanently and permanently flooded wetlands. Predominant vegetation associated with yellow-headed blackbird nesting habitat includes cattail, river bulrush, hardstem bulrush, and phragmites.


Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Status: Regular migrant, nesting species, and winter resident.

Migration: Abundant migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive in late February in the Western Upland, reaching the Northern Highland by 15 March. Peak spring migration occurs 15 March to 10 April. Fall migration begins in mid-July with dispersal from nesting areas and the formation of loose flocks. Numbers gradually build through August reaching peak abundance 10-25 September. During this period, roost flocks ranging from 25,000 to 50,000 individuals can be observed. Most fall migrants have departed by 1 November; however, stragglers remain into early December.

Nesting Season Distribution: Abundant nesting species in the Western Upland and Central Plain, common in the Northern Highland. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) suggest that a very large breeding population exists in the open agricultural areas of the Western Upland and Central Plain. This breeding population diminishes in abundance in the more forested Northern Highland.

Winter: Regular winter resident in the Western Upland, casual elsewhere. Wintering red-winged blackbirds are usually associated with Lowland Deciduous Forest, Shrub Carr, Alder Thicket, natural basin wetlands, farmsteads, and feedlots.

Habitat: Red-winged blackbirds use a variety of wetland and upland sites for nesting. Wetlands include sedge meadows, seasonally, semipermanently, and permanently flooded wetlands dominated by cattail, river bulrush, hardstem bulrush, softstem bulrush, and phragmites. Alder Thicket, Shrub Carr, northern Forest Bordered Wetlands, and Black Spruce-Tamarack Bogs are also important. Upland nesting sites include agricultural fields, Old Field Community, Hayland, Managed Grasslands, and to a lesser extent Northern Hardwood Forest, Southern Deciduous Forest, and Lowland Deciduous Forest. This species is among the most widespread and adaptable breeding birds in the Valley.


Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)

Status: Casual migrant and nesting species.

Migration: Rare migrant in Pierce, St. Croix, and Washington counties; accidental elsewhere. Migrants arrive 15-20 May, remaining in this region until mid-August. There are two spring records for Polk County: 20 May 1949 and 20 May 1976.

Nesting Season Distribution: Several nesting season records exist in the Western Upland; however, only one confirmed nesting record exists. A nest with eggs was found in Washington County on 15 July 1953 (Herz 1954). S. Sprunt found a singing male near Gordon, Douglas County, on 6 July 1956 (Lound and Lound 1956b). Recently, nesting season adults have been regularly observed along the lower Willow River in St. Croix County. Although nest records have not been obtained here, strong evidence of nesting exists.

Habitat: Breeding season orchard orioles are typically associated with open areas in mature Lowland Deciduous Forest.


Northern Oriole (Icterus galbula)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species.

Migration: Common migrant throughout the Valley, locally abundant adjacent to the St. Croix River in St. Croix, Pierce, and Washington counties. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland 1-5 May and peak populations occur 15-20 May. Spring migrants arrive in the Northern Highland by 10 May (earliest-26 April 1957, Burnett County; Lound and Lound 1957c), reaching peak populations 20-25 May. Fall migration begins in late July. Peak movement in the Northern Highland occurs 5-20 August and departure is by 10 September. Peak fall migration in the Western Upland occurs 15-30 August and departure is by 15 September (latest-1 December 1971, Washington County).

Nesting Season Distribution: Common nesting species in the Western Upland and Central Plain, uncommon and local in the Northern Highland. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) suggest that the region of greatest abundance is the Central Plain. Unfortunately, the Hudson BBS route does not traverse large expanses of northern oriole habitat as this species is a common breeding bird in that area. A recent increase in breeding populations is suggested by Jackson's (1943) statement that this species was "nowhere common in the region except at St. Croix Falls," (Polk County). Goddard (1972) reported a density of 20.7 pairs per 40 ha in the Kinnickinnic River Valley, Pierce County.

Habitat: The northern oriole is primarily a species of mature deciduous forest. Also fairly common in ornamental plantings in residential areas. The largest breeding populations occur in mature Northern Hardwood Forest and Lowland Deciduous Forest.


Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

Status: Regular migrant and occasional early winter resident.

Migration: Common spring and abundant fall migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland about 10 March and reach the Northern Highland by 25 March. Peak spring populations occur 1-20 April and departure is by 5 May. Fall migrants arrive about 15 September, reaching peak populations 10-25 October. Most have departed from the Northern Highland by 10 November and elsewhere by 1 December.

Winter: Early winter records of this species consist primarily of small flocks associated with lowland forest habitats. Christmas Bird Count data suggest that early winter occurrences are restricted largely to areas adjacent to the lower St. Croix River. However, one record of an individual on the Solon Springs CBC was probably of a late migrant. During January and February, single birds will occasionally frequent feeding stations, including one at a Polk County feeder through 17 February 1959 (Winkler 1959).

Habitat: The rusty blackbird is primarily a species of wetland habitats. Fall concentrations of these birds are typically observed in large Alder Thickets, Shrub Carr, or northern bog habitats. Edges of prairie wetlands are also heavily used, primarily in the Western Upland.


Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species.

Migration: Fairly common spring and uncommon fall migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland 10-15 March, reaching the Northern Highland by 1 April. Peak migration occurs 10-30 April and departure from nonbreeding areas by 10 May. Fall migrants arrive in the Western Upland 10-15 August. Peak fall populations occur 25 August to 15 September and departure is by 10 October.

Nesting Season Distribution: Fairly common to locally uncommon nesting species in the Central Plain and Northern Highland. Roberts (1932) described the eastward extension of this species' breeding range from the Red River Valley to east-central Minnesota in the early 1900's. Additional evidence of recent expansion into this region is provided by Jackson (1943) who failed to record this bird in northwestern Wisconsin in 1919.

Winter: Several CBC records of Brewer's blackbird exist for the Suburban St. Paul count. These records include: 4 on 29 December 1962, 4 on 26 December 1964, and 11 on 30 December 1972.

Habitat: Brewer's blackbirds primarily use fencerows, railroad rights-of-way and Old Field habitats. Occasional breeding pairs are encountered in Northern Sedge Meadow, open bog habitats, and in highway rights-of-way.


Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)

Status: Regular migrant, nesting species, and winter resident.

Migration: Abundant migrant in the Western Upland and Central Plain, fairly common (locally common) in the Northern Highland. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland 20-25 February, reaching the Northern Highland by 30 March. Peak populations occur 20 March to 15 April. Fall migration begins in mid-July with dispersal from breeding areas. Large mixed flocks of common grackles and red-winged blackbirds form in early August, supplemented with Brewer's blackbirds in late August and rusty blackbirds in late September. Peak fall populations occur 10 September to 10 October. Departure from the Northern Highland occurs by 15 October and most birds have departed from the Western Upland by 5 November but stragglers remain to 30 November.

Nesting Season Distribution: Common to locally abundant nesting species in the Western Upland and Central Plain, uncommon to locally common in the Northern Highland. This is one of the most rapidly increasing nesting species in the Valley. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) show a gradual decrease in relative abundance northward from the heavily farmed regions of the Western Upland. In 1919, Jackson (1943) reported that common grackles were "never particularly plentiful, except when they gathered in flocks." The current abundance of this species and the expansion of its breeding range has been fairly recent and may be associated with an expanding human population or changes in agricultural practices.

Winter: Common grackles occasionally overwinter each year in the Western Upland. Individual birds elsewhere may be wintering or late migrants.

Habitat: Common grackles are fairly opportunistic in their selection of nesting habitats and have been recorded in nearly every habitat type. Highest breeding densities are usually associated with Pine Plantations, deciduous woodlots, or ornamental conifer plantings. The increased planting of coniferous trees has enhanced common grackle nesting populations and may be a factor in their expanding and increasing populations.


Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Status: Regular migrant and nesting species, casual early winter resident.

Migration: Abundant spring and uncommon fall migrant throughout the Valley. Spring migrants arrive in the Western Upland 15-20 March and reach the Northern Highland by 10 April. Peak spring populations occur 10-25 April. Fall migration begins with flock formation in late June. A gradual movement away from breeding areas occurs throughout the fall; consequently, no peak population dates can be given. Most migrants have departed by 15 September and stragglers remain through October.

Nesting Season Distribution: Common to locally abundant nesting species throughout the Valley. Breeding Bird Survey data (Table 7) show a large and well-distributed breeding population. Goddard (1972) reported a density of 24.2 pairs per 40 ha in the Kinnickinnic River Valley, Pierce County.

Winter: Several early winter records exist from CBC's in Washington, St. Croix, and Douglas counties. These records include: 1 January 1970 (St. Croix); 1 January 1975, and 3 January 1976 (Washington); and 18 December 1974 (Douglas).

Habitat: Brown-headed cowbirds use virtually all habitats in this region. Largest breeding populations occur in woodland edge situations.


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