Dickcissel Spiza americana is the only member of its genus in the family Cardinalidae. The scientific name translates straightforwardly to American finch.
This species, resembling a miniature meadowlark, is common to abundant throughout its range across the midsection of North America, where it inhabits native grassland, and readily adapts to agricultural uses, where it voraciously feeds on seeds, much to the chagrin and annoyance of farmers.
I first saw this species in Ontario about twenty-five years ago in a part of Richmond Hill which has now been totally converted to tract after tract of residential development. At that time a fellow birder located a male and in searching together in the days following his discovery we found a female also, giving at the least the possibility of breeding. We were never able to confirm whether nesting occurred or not.
At that time a Dickcissel in southern Ontario was a mega-rarity, such that when I ended my term as Chairman of the the Board of a well-known Canadian charity, a picture of the species was painted and presented to me in honour of our rare sighting.
Since that time, up until the present, I have seen this species only once more in Ontario.
This is in stark contrast to this year, when Dickcissels seem to be everywhere throughout the Province of Ontario, with multiple sightings, even here in Waterloo.
Several other species are colonizing Ontario as climate change seems to herald a northward movement in their range, and I wonder whether Dickcissel is the next species to exemplify this trend.
Franc Gorenc, ever ebullient, wanted to take pictures of what was a new bird for him, and he and Carol, on a very windy day, visited its known location with us. We were not disappointed, seeing two males and a female. The conditions for photography were less than ideal, with very strong winds blowing the birds around as they perched, and constantly blowing grass in front of the lens to distort the focus. Despite this, a persistent Franc managed a couple of shots.
Having enjoyed seeing this enchanting little bird this year, we are left to wonder whether it will return again in 2018 to cement its status as a breeding bird in Ontario. Perhaps in years to come it will be a standard feature of our grassland ecosystem, taking its place alongside other common residents. It will be very welcome!