Jeff Green | Mar 19, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - March 19, 2009 The Red-Winged Blackbird: Herald of SpringBy Lorraine Julien Flashes of red on the wing and distinctive, raucous calls announce that the Red-Winged Blackbirds are arriving back in marshlands and other open areas from their winter in the south. Usually these early harbingers of spring arrive in early to mid-March, braving sometimes cold, snowy weather in order to stake out their territories. The marshes they love may still be frozen. When migrating, the Red-Winged Blackbird travels in single-sex flocks. The males arrive first, foraging and roosting together for a few weeks and then, gradually, each stakes out his turf. The females arrive two or three weeks later.
It is so heartening after a long, cold winter to see and hear these birds. Usually we hear the first call when out walking and, even if the weather is miserable, we know that warmer weather will soon be here. It’s good to see Robins in the spring but I’ve never seen them arrive as early as the Red-wings.
The Red-wing is a medium-sized song bird up to 9” long with a wingspan 12 – 16 inches and a moderately long, sharply pointed bill. Even for a novice birder, these birds are easy to identify. Though the males are black all over, their red shoulder bands and yellow wing bar are not as brilliant when they first arrive. It’s not long, however, before the shoulder bands become dazzling as they strut around in full breeding finery, fluffing up their feathers to attract the girls! The brown striped female is strikingly different from the male, looking very much like a large sparrow. This drab colour has the benefit of acting as a camouflage when the female is incubating her eggs. Each female maintains her own nesting zone within her mate’s territory, driving away potential new concubines.
Food consists mainly of seeds, insects and berries. Insects are picked off plants or caught on the wing. These birds are not fussy eaters and may also eat carrion, frogs, snails, eggs, etc. I’ve been able to attract them to my feeder with seed, bread scraps and suet when they first arrive in spring and other food sources are scarce. Once their natural food supply becomes plentiful, they don’t seem to bother with backyard feeders.
The male is very noisy during the breeding and nesting season and fiercely defends his territory. He keeps all other males and predators such as crows, osprey and hawks away but, in rare instances, will also attack large mammals such as horses and people. Many Red-wing parents nest together in groups which help to deter predators; sort of a community watch! Males, in particular, may fight among themselves but when a predator threatens the community they band together to drive outsiders away.
Where possible, nests are well concealed and usually built in reeds and cattails above water at a height of one to two meters. The relative inaccessibility of these nests also helps to thwart attackers. Despite all this vigilance though, about half of all Red-wing nests are raided each year by predators.
Depending on which study you read, one male may have up to 10 or 15 females making nests in his territory though 4 is probably average; however, the female, not to be outdone, may be courted by a number of males, and may have the occasional fling while hubby is away (something like Desperate Housewives). This means that the eggs in any one nest could have several different parents! One study shows that almost 30 per cent of hatchlings are fathered through extramarital affairs, usually involving next-door neighbours!
Young Red-wings are a brownish colour until their third year. Gradually, late each summer in August and September, Red-wings start to gather in favourite areas in the hundreds of thousands roosting for a while before they begin their trek south.
At least until recently, Red-wings were believed to be the most numerous single species of land bird in North America with an estimated population of approximately 400 million. Although pesticides at one time were used by farmers in the U.S. to reduce their numbers, it seems to have had little effect on these tough birds. As far as I’m concerned, anything that consumes huge quantities of insects must be a good thing!