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, or perched on overhead lines.
When growing up this bird was found mostly in the marshes and wetlands of the Midwest and Central Great Plains. As a kid I remember running through the fields dotted with cattail marshes and dissected by Beal’s Slough through the area where the Alamo Plaza now stands. Back then Pioneers Street was the extreme south edge of Lincoln and in a matter of minutes from our home we could be in the wide open spaces where these 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. 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, including 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 a true 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 above the water surface.
There are many reoccurring chases during the courtship period. Red-winged Blackbirds commonly nest in loose groups since marshy habitats have become scarce. 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 at 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.
When 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.
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 agile flyers.