Red-winged blackbirds are back, on territory, and sounding off
Sometimes I like to nerd out on a specific bird. The challenge is to learn something new, and I always do.
Today’s focus is the red-winged blackbird, a true harbinger of spring in northern Illinois. The glossy black males with scarlet shoulder patches (or “epaulets”) are now returning from the southern U.S., establishing territories in preparation for mating season. Their exuberant “konk-la-reeeee!” is a classic sound of the marsh that amplifies in the coming weeks.
The redwing is highly adaptable. It thrives in a variety of habitats, even low-quality ones, and adjusts its diet to the season. These traits, along with a hyperactive sex drive, make it one of the most abundant birds in North America, found coast-to-coast. We see redwings just about everywhere, from wetlands and farm fields to bird feeders and ditches along the interstate.
Beginning birders may find the female redwing tricky to identify. It’s brown and heavily streaked, like a large sparrow. The females migrate here a few weeks after the males and maintain a low profile.
|Lake Ellyn Park, Glen Ellyn|
Some redwings get physical, approaching from behind and making light contact with their feet. Getting bopped on the head is startling but seldom bloody.
Any perceived enemy is fair game for the fearless RWBB. The species will even chase and briefly land on flying hawks, crows and herons, giving the larger birds a peck on the head or neck.
My Words on Birds business card features a redwing in the air, poised for attack. I snapped the photo looking straight up and then scrambled to safety.
But let’s get back to those epaulets. When a male redwing sings, the tail spreads out and the wings lift, fully exposing the red patches. Ornithologists, I learned, call this song-spread. The display serves to defend territory and attract potential mates. Birds with the biggest, brightest wing patches enjoy a competitive advantage.
The red patches have a yellowish edge at the base. A thin buffy wing bar is often the only color visible on a male, such as during a foraging trip inside another male’s territory. This species can be inconspicuous when it needs to be.
A few other gleanings:
-- The lifespan of a red-winged blackbird averages about three years. The oldest bird on record, which we know from bird banding, was 15 years and 9 months.
-- Redwings are among the most polygynous of all bird species. Males may breed with 10 or more females during nesting season, although three is average. Females are a little slinky, too, often mating with more than one male.
|A former RWBB nest|
-- Females construct the nest from dried marsh vegetation and grasses, about four feet off the ground or water surface. The nest is used only once. A new one is built if there is a second brood, to keep the young safe from tiny nest parasites.
-- Redwings are capable of massive crop damage when they gather in huge flocks after nesting season. The species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and yet farmers are allowed to employ “control measures” to mitigate economic losses.
When not raising families, red-winged blackbirds are indeed highly social, which makes them easy targets. Winter roosts in agricultural areas, usually with grackles and starlings mixed in, can number in the millions.
This time of year, however, the dapper redwings are setting up shop and looking out for No. 1. Celebrate spring’s early arrival by going for a look and listen at your local marsh. Even a neighborhood pond with some cattails might do the trick. The show is on!
Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.