Dickcissel, Spiza americana

Dickcissel Spiza americana

The Dickcissel reaches the eastern-most limit of its breeding range in Tennessee, and is locally common in summer only in the western part of the state.  The prairie grasslands of the central United States are its natural breeding habitat, and it has successfully adapted to some agricultural landscapes in modern times.

Local abundance of this bird during the breeding season varies greatly from year to year, and these fluctuations are thought to be related to local rainfall and habitat conditions. During migration, Dickcissels will travel in flocks of several hundred birds to their wintering grounds in the llanos of northern South America, where they form enormous flocks that can number over one million birds.

Dickcissels are usually present in Tennessee from early May until late August.

Description: The Dickcissel is a sparrow-like bird with a thick bill. The breeding male (April-August) is streaked brown and black above with a grayish neck, a yellow line above the eye, a rusty patch on the shoulder, a white chin, yellow breast, white belly, and a black V-shaped bib on the upper chest.

The female is duller and lacks the black bib. Non-breeding males look similar to the female, but have a gray bib. 

Length: 6"
Wingspan: 10"
Weight: 0.1 lbs

Voice: The song is a series of short, dry, insect-like phrases dick dick ciss cissel. The distinctive flight-call is a low electric buzz.

Similar Species:

  • Eastern Meadowlarks also have a black "V" on the breast, but are much larger, have more extensive yellow on the breast, have no rust on the shoulder, and have a longer pointed bill.
  • Female House Sparrows resemble female Dickcissels, but lack any yellow in the plumage.

Habitat: In Tennessee Dickcissels are found in large fields of native grasses, weedy fields, often with some woody vegetation, and grain or hay fields. On rare occasions, they come to bird feeders.

Diet: Dickcissels feed on seeds fallen to the ground, but also perch on stalks and pluck seeds.

Nesting and reproduction: Dickcissel males are frequently polygynous and may have more than one female in their territory. The female alone builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and feeds the young.

Clutch Size: Average of 4.5 eggs per clutch, range 3 to 6 eggs.

Incubation: Only the female incubates eggs for 12 to 13 days.

Fledging: Young leave the nest 8 to 10 days after hatching, and are only fed by the female.

Nest: The nest is a bulky cup composed of coarse weed and grass stems interwoven with a few leaves and grasses. The nest interior is lined with fine grasses, rootlets, and hair. It is usually placed in low shrubs and trees; average nest height in Tennessee is 14 inches above the ground, with a range of 6 to 18 inches.

Status in Tennessee: Dickcissels are locally common nesters in East Tennessee, uncommon to rare nesters in Middle and West Tennessee, and very rare winter residents. They usually arrive in early-May and depart for the winter grounds by late August.

Dynamic map of Dickcissel eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The female alone feeds the young. One study in Illinois found that a female was able to deliver 20 grasshoppers per hour to her four 5-day-old nestlings.
  • In Venezuela, where wintering flocks can number over one million birds, Dickcissels are considered an agricultural pest. They frequently feed on rice and sorghum crops and some farmers have tried to poison them. Several conservation groups have been working with Venezuelan farmer's associations to develop a management plan for this species.
  • Dickcissels are known for their semi-nomadic movements, resulting in dramatic changes in distribution and abundance on both the breeding and wintering grounds from year-to-year. Most individuals winter in the seasonally flooded grasslands of Venezuela (called llanos), but occasionally travel into Central or other parts of South America to spend the non-breeding season.
  • The large-scale restoration of grasslands in the United States through the Conservation Reserve Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created (restored) nesting habitat for this species.

Obsolete English Names: black-throated bunting

Best places to see in Tennessee: Dickcissels may be found in open grassland and pasture with woody vegetation primarily in West Tennessee; Bark Camp Barrens WMA in Coffee County, Ernest Rice WMA, Dyer County, Bells Bend Park, Nashville, and other locations.