Jeff Green | Mar 24, 2005
Nature Reflections March 24, 2005LAND O' LAKES NewsWeb Home
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Many people think of the American Robin as the early bird of spring, but to me the Red-winged Blackbird is really the harbinger of the warming season. Robins are more likely to remain in Ontario in the winter months, and in fact I just heard of an overwintering flock of 17 north of Perth. Only rarely does an single redwing overwinter, and then it probably depends on bird feeders to survive.
When I lived south of Ottawa I expected and usually saw the first male redwing about March 6, followed in the next few days by more and more arrivals. Males arrive before the females in order to establish territories, which they will set up preferably in cattail marshes, or along ditches, in swamps, and around ponds. The bird will announce its territory with a onk-a-lee or konk-a-ree call with the emphasis on the last buzzy syllable. A territory may be 2000 square meters and the birds will also puff out their red shoulder markings or fly singing their onk-a-lee song, stall the flight, raise their tails, lower their heads, then glide to a landing. This is both to warn other males that this is my territory! but also to attract the females.
Within weeks the drab females arrive, looking more like large sparrows with their brown, heavily-streaked plumage and seek out the males with the best real-estate where there are protected nest sites with a good location for the young to survive. Usually there are several females in a territory of a single male, but does this mean that these females are faithful only to him or him to then - not at all! Roaming males will mate with females in other territories.
His responsibility usually ends with mating and it is up to the female to build the nest, as well as incubate the eggs. The nest, made in one to six days, is a well-made cup-shaped structure of marsh grasses or cattails attached to growing vegetation or in a bush in a marsh. She will lay 4 to 6 pale blue eggs spotted or streaked with dark brown and purple. The female is the main provider but the male may assist with feeding the young, who seem to know only one thing at birth - how to open their mouths for food. Fed primarily insects and spiders, they quickly grow and will fledge in about 14 days, but will continue to be fed by the female for 2 to 3 weeks. At this time they look like small, plump versions of the mother and soon join a flock of females. Meanwhile the female may be busy with a second or third brood.
There is high predation on the eggs and young, and the redwing lives in the wild only 2.14 years on average, though one wild bird was recorded as living 15 years and nine months. Predators include raccoons, mink, snakes, hawks, and owls. Often they are shot, trapped or poisoned (particularly in southern areas where the migrating birds may be assembled in huge flocks) by farmers trying to protect their crops who do not realize the benefit these birds give as they eat harmful insects, and chiefly consume the grain that has fallen on the ground.
So spring IS coming and Im watching for a robin-sized blackbird with red epaulets and listening for its calls!