Red-winged Blackbird

The Red-winged Blackbird may just be the most numerous native bird in North America. Their population has increased significantly in the later part of the 20th Century from several hundred million some 40 years ago. They have become a common sight atop swaying cattails along wet roadside ditches, in wetlands, and low lying prairies. They are often seen perched on overhead lines and fences.

These boisterous and somewhat aggressive blackbirds commonly show up at bird feeders in late winter and early spring. But as the chill in the air begins to warm and insects emerge they most often vacate the bird feeders it search of a meatier meal.

Many times flocks of Red-wing Blackbirds will be joined with other, more favorable birds of their family such as the Brewers Blackbird or Rusty Blackbird.. But they may also be accompanied by every backyard bird feeders nemesis, the Common Grackle. None-the-less apart from them empting your bird feeder, they are a very interesting bird.

When growing up this bird could easily be found  in the marshes and wetlands of the Midwest and Great Plains. As a kid I remember running through the fields dotted with cattail marshes that were found along Beal’s Slough, the tributary with headwaters starting on the Cheney Hill, meandering back and forth with high cut banks along Highway 2 completing it’s journey as it emptied into Salt Creek. Little did I know at the time the fields along 56th & Highway 2 where we played in the grasses and wetlands, climbing down the steep banks of the slough, would one day be the location of the  Alamo Plaza shopping center where I would open a backyard bird feeding store. Back then, Pioneers Street was the south edge of College View and in a matter of minutes from our home on a bicycle we could be in these wide open spaces where Red-winged Blackbirds would squawk their disapproval if we neared their nest.

The male Red-winged Blackbird is dark glossy black with boldly colored shoulders patches of deep red and yellow. However the females are more nondescript. They are a plain, heavily streaked brown bird with a whitish eyebrow resembling a large sparrow or starling. The colors and patterns help them blend into the tall weedy wetland plants they nest in. Both sexes are seven to nine inches long with a wingspan up to fifteen inches.

Today, with the expansion of urbanization and the draining of wet areas, and the increase in the numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, they can be found almost anywhere there is standing water. Country road ditches, lagoons, and retention ponds. It seems as if adaptability is the key to their survival.

In the spring, usually the first few weeks of March, the males begin to return to their regular summer haunts along roads and highways. Before you know it, as if by magic, they are seen crowding into shrubs that were bare just yesterday. They’re arrival is another harbinger that spring is near.

The male red-wing precedes the female by about two weeks. When these males arrive they busily go about setting up territories doing everything they can to be noticed. They will select a high perch sounding out their “conk-la-ree” song all day long. These territories may begin to shrink as more males move into an area. The females are less visible staying low in the cattails and sedges searching for food and locating a spot to weave their nest in the marshy plants near the ground or just above the water surface.

There are many reoccurring chases during the courtship period. Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nesting in loose groups since marshy habitats have been dramatically reduced. As many as five or more females will crowd their nests together in a single male’s territory mating with him as well as other nearby males.

The female builds the nest by herself weaving stringy plant materials between several plant stalks. She will add wet leaves and mud making an interior cup she will then line with fine grasses. As she constructs the nest the male stands guard and fends off any approaching danger. He is a fearless defender of their home turf, rising to attack crows, hawks, or whatever dares to cross into the nesting area including humans. They have been viewed hanging to the backs of crows, stabbing away with their beaks until the intruder is out of the territory. The female will lay between three to five pale blue to green eggs with brown or black markings. She is the sole incubator of the eggs which will hatch in eleven to twelve days. In another ten days the young are ready to leave the nest. The male blackbird then plays an increasing roll in rearing them. The parents will feed the fledglings for another ten days or so after which time they will be on their own.

Young blackbirds of all varieties seem to form feeding flocks as soon as they leave the care of their parents. You will begin to see these flocks as early as the beginning of June. The flocks will grow bigger as they prepare to migrate out in late summer, but for now these are just first year birds flocking together to feed communally.

Wingtip: The population of Red-winged Blackbirds may remains stable or is even increasing due to massive fields of row crops replacing prairies and grasslands. Many farmers detest these huge flocks that feed on fields of sunflowers, corn and sorghum. There have been cases of farmers illegally poisoning these flocks. However such an option to protect their crops is against the Migratory Bird Treaty as many songbirds and others fall victim to such extreme measures.

As I stated earlier, arriving in early spring Red-winged Blackbirds will feed on waste grains and seeds. If you live near wet meadows, marshes, or lagoons you will have them foraging at your bird feeders. But as the weather warms their diet becomes primarily insects through the summer months. They will probe at the bases of aquatic plants with their slender bills, prying them open to get at insects hidden inside. As fall and winter returns they will form large flocks with other blackbirds feeding on weedy seeds such as ragweed and cocklebur along with native sunflowers and waste grains. They can often number in the thousands to millions of birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, often joined by other blackbirds in late summer early fall, can fill the sky with remarkable aerial acrobatics called a  murmuration. These large flocks moves together as one, as smooth and fluid as running water. They fly as one huge mass that twists, turns, and changes direction at a moment’s notice! That’s what seeing a murmuration is like.  They do this for a variety of reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers as predators like prairie falcons and hawks find it hard to target one bird in amongst a hypnotizing flock of thousands. These blackbirds also gather to keep warm at night and exchange information about good feeding area

 Wingtip: Why is a flock of birds flying in unison in a tight formation called a murmuration? It is because this special kind of flock is named for the sound of a low murmur it makes from thousands of wingbeats and soft flight calls.

None-the-less, a drive through rural areas would not be the same without the loud repetitive calls and flashy red shoulder patches of these bold agile flyers.

Some Interesting Red-winged Blackbird Facts:

  • The Red-winged Blackbird is a highly polygamous species, with one male having up to 15 different females making nests in his territory.
  • Some birds may travel as far as 80 km (50 mi) between the roosting and feeding sites. At rest, the male may show a pale yellow epaulet (shoulder bar) Epaulets of males less than one year old a5re more orange than those of adults
  • During the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds eat mostly insects, switching to mostly to seeds and grains during the winter months
  • The male Red-winged Blackbirds return north ahead of the females by several weeks in the spring than migrate south in the fall after the females have already left.
  • Red-winged blackbirds often share their winter roosts with other species of blackbirds




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