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Montana Field Guides

Dickcissel - Spiza americana

Potential Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4B

Agency Status

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Dickcissel is a sparrow-sized bird about 6 inches long with males about 10 to 20% larger than females (Temple 2002). Males have an overall grayish head with a striking yellow line above the eye (supercilium). The chin is white, bordered by yellow malar stripes with a black throat patch beneath. Males also have lateral throat stripes on either side of the black patch. The breast is bright yellow and the belly is white-gray. The back is streaked brownish and the tail and wings are blackish. The wings also have a significant brown or chestnut color at the shoulders (Temple 2002). Adult females have a less distinct head and facial pattern with no black throat patch, smaller, less obvious lateral throat stripes and a duller yellow breast. Also, the chestnut colored shoulder patches are much more pale compared to the adult male (Temple 2002). Immature Dickcissels are fairly similar in appearance to the adult female, but have a drabber plumage than the adult female (Temple 2002).

The song of the male Dickcissel is obvious when heard, as the bird appears to state its own name by singing "dick, dick, cissel" or "see, see, dick, dick, ciss, ciss, ciss" (National Geographic Society 1987, Temple 2002). The flight call, given by both sexes is often described as an electric buzz or buzzer-like "bzrrrt" or "fpppt."

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The combination of black throat patch, bright yellow breast and chestnut colored shoulder patches distinguish the male Dickcissel. No other species in North America has this combination of characteristics (Temple 2002). The female and juvenile Dickcissel have similarities in size and coloration to the female House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). However, female and juvenile Dickcissels have lateral throat stripes, paler and longer bills, and streaked thighs, where the House Sparrow does not (Temple 2002). They are also slimmer in appearance than the House Sparrow.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
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Western Hemisphere Range

eBird Occurrence Map

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Courtesy of eBird and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 269

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Almost no information regarding Dickcissel migratory patterns exists for Montana. Dickcissels have only been observed in the state during June and July, and most of these observations are breeding and potential breeding. Montana Bird Distribution (2003) has only three transient/migratory observations, all occurring in June. All of these observations were west of known breeding or potential breeding areas for Dickcissel in the state, except one observation west of the Continental Divide in Missoula.

No specific habitat information for Montana is currently available, as systematic surveys for Dickcissels have not been done. Habitat information from other Dickcissel sources state that breeding habitat is grasslands, meadows, savanna, cultivated lands, and brushy fields (American Ornithologists Union 1998). They nest on the ground in grass or rank herbage, or raised a little above ground, in grass tufts or tall weeds, or in low shrubs or trees, up to about 2 meters above the ground but usually low (Harrison 1978). They prefer habitat with dense, moderate to tall vegetation (particularly with some forbs) and moderately deep litter. Suitable habitats are found in old fields, hayfields, fencerows, hedgerows, road rights-of-way, planted cover (e.g., Conservation Reserve Program [CRP] fields and dense nesting cover), and moderately grazed and idle prairie. A high abundance of forbs provides perches, nesting cover, nest support, and possibly increased invertebrate abundance.

Nests are elevated in grasses, forbs, shrubs, or trees, and less commonly on the ground in thick vegetation (Gross 1921, Overmire 1962, 1963, Meanley 1963, Zimmerman 1966, Blankespoor 1970, Fretwell 1977, Frawley 1989, Winter 1998). Nest heights range from 0 to 2 meters (Taber 1947, Ely 1957, Meanley 1963, Von Steen 1965, Gross 1968, Berry 1971, Roth 1980, Laubach 1984, Winter 1998). Hayland is used more frequently for nesting than cropland (Gross 1968, Faanes and Lingle 1995). Occasionally they will nest in strip cover such as roadside ditches, fencerows, and grassed waterways (Gross 1921, Meanley 1963, Basore et al. 1986, Bryan and Best 1991, 1994, Camp and Best 1994, Warner 1994). Nests in road rights-of-way or other edge habitats, however, can experience high rates of depredation (Basore et al. 1986, Camp and Best 1994).

The non-breeding habitat of Dickcissels consists mainly of a variety of open habitats, second growth, and scrub (American Ornithologists Union 1998). They are also often found in rice-growing regions in winter (Ehrlich et al. 1992). They prefer to roost in sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) fields, but if not available, they will utilize bamboo, cattail marshes, grasses, and shrubs (Basili and Temple 1999).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
No food habit studies have been completed in the state. In general, Dickcissels eat weed seeds, grain, insects, and spiders. In winter they eat mainly grain and seeds, foraging on the ground (Terres 1980) or picking seeds off seedheads (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Young nestlings are fed insects.

No information specific to Montana is available. Information from other locations within the species' range states that the mean territory size on the breeding grounds in tallgrass prairies of Kansas ranged from 0.45 to 0.57 hectares, whereas the mean territory size in old fields ranged from 0.15 to 0.95 hectares (Zimmerman 1966, Schartz 1969, Petersen 1978, Finck 1983, 1984). The mean territory size in an Illinois old field ranged from 0.38 to 0.54 hectares (Harmeson 1972, 1974). The mean territory sizes in ungrazed and grazed tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma were 0.25 hectares and 0.47 hectares, respectively (Overmire 1963). Larger territory sizes of 1.4 hectares and 1.5 hectares were reported for tallgrass prairie in Iowa and tallgrass pasture in Oklahoma, respectively (Wiens 1971, Laubach 1984). In Kansas, males commonly returned to the same breeding area in successive years (Zimmerman and Finck 1989).

In winter, Dickcissels occur in small groups or concentrated in dense flocks of 100s or 1000s (Hilty and Brown 1986) or up to 3 million in agricultural areas of Venezuelan llanos (Basili and Temple 1999).

Reproductive Characteristics
Little information exists regarding Dickcissel reproduction in Montana. Systematic surveys for this species have yet to be done in the state. However, information from other areas where Dickcissels occur indicates that clutch sizes are between 3 and 5 (usually 4). They typically produce two broods per year. Incubation by the female lasts 11 to 13 days. Young are tended by the female and leave the nest at 7 to 10 days. However, they are unable to fly until 11 to 12 days.

No known active management is ongoing for the Dickcissel in the state. Policies regarding Conservation Reserve Program lands may have a significant impact on the reproductive success of Dickcissels in Montana given their habitat preferences (see Habitat).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Basili, G. D., and S. A. Temple. 1999. Winter ecology, behavior, and conservation needs of Dickcissels in Venezuela. Pages 289-299 in Ecology and conservation of grassland birds of the Western Hemisphere (P. D. Vickery and J. R. Herkert, Eds.). Studies in Avian Biology No. 19.
    • Basore, N.S., L.B. Best, and J.D. Wooley, Jr. 1986. Bird nesting in Iowa no-tillage and tilled cropland. Journal of Wildlife Management 50:10-28.
    • Berry, G.A. 1971. The nesting biology of the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) in north central Oklahoma. M.S. thesis. Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. 27 pp.
    • Blankespoor, G.W. 1970. The significance of nest and nest site microclimate for the Dickcissel, (Spiza americana). Ph.D. dissertation. Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS. 184 pp.
    • Bryan, G.G., and L.B. Best. 1991. Bird abundance and species richness in grassed waterways in Iowa rowcrop fields. American Midland Naturalist 126:90-102.
    • Bryan, G.G., and L.B. Best. 1994. Avian nest density and success in grassed waterways in Iowa rowcrop fields. Wildlife Society Bulletin 22:583-592.
    • Camp, M., and L.B. Best. 1994. Nest density and nesting success of birds in roadsides adjacent to rowcrop fields. American Midland Naturalist 131:347-358.
    • Ely, C.A. 1957. Comparative nesting success of certain south-central Oklahoma birds. M.S. thesis. University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK. 74 pp.
    • Erhlich, P.R., D.S. Doblin, and D. Wheye. 1992. Birds in jeopardy: the imperiled and extinct birds of the United States and Canada, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
    • Faanes, C.A., and G.R. Lingle. 1995. Breeding birds of the Platte River Valley of Nebraska.
    • Finck, E.J. 1983. Male behavior, territory quality and female choice in the Dickcissel (Spiza americana). Ph.D. dissertation. Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS. 79 pp.
    • Finck, E.J. 1984. Male Dickcissel behavior in primary and secondary habitats. Wilson Bulletin 96:672-680.
    • Frawley, B.J. 1989. The dynamics of nongame bird breeding ecology in Iowa alfalfa fields. M.S. thesis. Iowa State University, Ames, IA. 94 pp.
    • Fretwell, S. 1977. Is the Dickcissel a Threatened Species? American Birds 31(5):923-932.
    • Gross, A.O. 1921. The Dickcissel (Spiza americana) of the Illinois prairie. Auk 38:1-26, 163-184.
    • Gross, A.O. 1968. Dickcissel. Pages 158-191 in O.L. Austin, Jr., editor. Life histories of North American cardinals, grosbeaks, towhees, finches, sparrows, and allies, part 1. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.
    • Harmeson, J.P. 1972. Breeding ecology of the Dickcissel. M.S. thesis. University of Illinois, Urbana, IL. 26 pp.
    • Harmeson, J.P. 1974. Breeding ecology of the Dickcissel. Auk 91:348-359.
    • Harrison, C.J.O. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Collins, Cleveland.
    • Hilty, S. L., and W. L. Brown. 1986. A guide to the birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 836 pp.
    • Laubach, R. 1984. Breeding birds of Sheeder Prairie Preserve, west-central Iowa. Proceedings of the Iowa Academy of Science 91:153-163.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Meanley, B. 1963. Nesting ecology and habits of the Dickcissel on the Arkansas Grand Prairie. Wilson Bulletin 75:280.
    • Montana Bird Distribution. 2003. Montana Bird Distribution Database.
    • National Geographic Society. 1987. Field guide to the birds of North America. Second edition. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
    • Overmire, T.G. 1962. Nesting of the Dickcissel in Oklahoma. Auk 79:115-116.
    • Overmire, T.G. 1963. The effects of grazing upon habitat utilization of the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) and Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii) in north central Oklahoma. Ph.D. dissertation. Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. 57 pp.
    • Petersen, K.L. 1978. Habitat distribution and territoriality in the Dickcissel and Red-winged Blackbird. Unpublished National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Participation Project. Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS. 37 pp.
    • Roth, R.R. 1980. Vegetation as a determinant in avian ecology. Proceedings of the Welder Wildlife Foundation Symposium 1:162-174.
    • Schartz, R.L. 1969. A time budget of the male Dickcissel (Spiza americana). M.S. thesis. Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 57 pp.
    • Stiles, F.G. and A.F. Skutch. 1989. A guide to the birds of Costa Rica. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY.
    • Taber, R.D. 1947. The Dickcissel in Wisconsin. Passenger Pigeon 9:39-46.
    • Temple, S.A. 2002. Dickcissel (Spiza americana). Species Account Number 703. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • Von Steen, D.A. 1965. A study of nesting Dickcissels in Nebraska. Nebraska Bird Review 33:22-24.
    • Warner, R.E. 1994. Agricultural land use and grassland habitat in Illinois: future shock for midwestern birds? Conservation Biology 8:147-156.
    • Wiens, J.A. 1971. Avian ecology and distribution in the comprehensive network, 1970. U.S. International Biological Program, Grassland Biome Technical Report 77. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO. 49 pp.
    • Winter, M. 1998. Effect of habitat fragmentation on grassland-nesting birds in southwestern Missouri. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. 215 pp.
    • Zimmerman, J.L. 1966. Polygyny in the Dickcissel. Auk 83:534-546.
    • Zimmerman, J.L., and E.J. Finck. 1989. Philopatry and correlates of territory fidelity in male Dickcissels. North American Bird Bander 14:83-85.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • Basili, G. and S. A. Temple. 1995. A perilous migration. Natural History 104(9): 40-47.
    • Basili, G.D. 1997. Continental-scale ecology and conservation of Dickcissels. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. 151 pp.
    • Best, L.B., D.F. Stauffer, A.R. Geier, K.L. Varland, J.P. Vogler, R.B. Dahlgren, and R.Q. Landers. 1981. Effects of habitat alterations on riparian plant and animal communities in Iowa. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS/OBS-81/26. 55 pp.
    • Best, L.B., H. Campa, III, K.E. Kemp, R.J. Robel, M.R. Ryan, J.A. Savidge, H.P. Weeks, Jr., and S.R. Winterstein. 1997. Bird abundance and nesting in CRP fields and cropland in the Midwest: a regional approach. Wildlife Society Bulletin 25:864-877.
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    • Dobkin, D.S. 1994. Conservation and management of neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. Univ. Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 220 pp.
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    • Fretwell, S. 1986. Distribution and abundance of the dickcissel. Current Ornithology 4: 211-242.
    • Fretwell, S.D. 1972. Ecological studies of Dickcissels in Texas. Bulletin of the Texas Ornithological Society 5:22-23.
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    • Wiens, J.A. 1963. Aspects of cowbird parasitism in southern Oklahoma. Wilson Bulletin 75:130-139.
    • Wiens, J.A. 1973. Pattern and process in grassland bird communities. Ecological Monographs 43:237-270.
    • Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85.
    • Zimmerman, J. L. 1982. Nesting success of Dickcissels (Spiza americana) in preferred and less preferred habitats. Auk 99:292-298.
    • Zimmerman, J.L. 1971. The territory and its density dependent effect in Spiza americana. The Auk 88:591-612.
    • Zimmerman, J.L. 1983. Cowbird parasitism of Dickcissels in different habitats and at different nest densities. Wilson Bulletin 95:7-22.
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Citation for data on this website:
Dickcissel — Spiza americana.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from