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by Ed Robinson
If I had to nominate the 10 birds on my most popular list, the red-winged blackbird would certainly be near the top. Over the years I have come to appreciate these showy and gregarious birds not only for their beauty but also for their generally friendly personalities. Often I have been in the field planting trees only to look up and find a blackbird sitting quietly and keeping an eye on me. This year I encountered a red-winged blackbird with a real attitude!
My interaction with a male I nicknamed Red Wing began in late March as these early migrants filtered back from their winter hangouts, with the males quickly staking out their breeding territories. One of the joys of early spring is visiting a marsh just after dawn to hear the chorus of birds and to watch them getting into the swing of breeding season. Red-winged blackbird males are prone to perch in exposed places, with the heads of cattails being a favorite spot. They spread out their wings to display the lovely red and yellow patches that make them so distinctive. The birds call and sing throughout the day, while spending up to 25 percent of their time defending their territory with aggressive flights and calls. Red Wing quickly set up shop in brushy areas around our yard and I could hear him just about any time I went outdoors – “cher EEE!”
Red-winged blackbirds are heavy consumers of seeds and grains, especially when insects have not yet become available for easy dining. Red Wing quickly figured out that there was plenty of seed on the ground below the feeder, thanks to the sloppy dining habits of the chickadees, nuthatches and especially the fussy finches. He would land on the ground and pick up his fill of seeds, especially enjoying the cracked corn and millet. Even a steady rain did not discourage him from feeding.
While I am used to seeing birds coming and going, Red Wing assumed that the ground under the feeder was his personal patch. Rather than darting in and out for a few tidbits, he would fluff out his wings and strut around like he was cock of the walk. He repeatedly called out a harsh “cleck” sound, perhaps to warn off possible interlopers. Sometimes he would fly up to the feeder and grab a few seeds, but it seemed he did that mostly to scare off the other birds. Red Wing would also zero in on the suet feeder, especially if there were woodpeckers or blue jays around. I’m accustomed to the jays acting like the local tough guys but Red Wing gave these larger birds no respect, flying directly at them and making so much noise that the jays flew away to avoid his aggression.
As time went on, I began to see a female blackbird who sometimes appeared with Red Wing. Her coloring is completely different from the male, with brown feathers highlighted with many streaks of white and tan, and a brown bill in contrast to the black of the males (look closely for some yellow at the base of her bill). Females are more cautious about appearing in public, preferring to linger in cattails, shrubs or near deep grass. Once they pick out a nesting site, they spend many hours over a few days using grasses, cattails, moss and mud to weave a tight nest suspended above ground with space for two to four eggs.
Unlike birds that pair up and display a great deal of care for one another, red-winged blackbirds are not big on loyalty. The males may breed with as many as 15 females, and even though a male may have several nesting females in his breeding territory, some of those females have been bred by other males. It makes for a pretty raucous affair with lots of flying around and calling as the males try to assert their dominance. Once the female lays her clutch of eggs, she will incubate them up to 13 days, and the fledglings will remain in the nest for around two weeks after coming into the world naked and blind. It is amazing how fast they develop and grow sufficient feathers to make their initial flights.
In this year of coronavirus, I had plenty of time to observe Red Wing and his antics. In good weather I would sit close to the open door near the feeders with my camera, taking photos when the birds would tolerate my presence. Red Wing gradually became comfortable with me, even tolerating me standing outside as long as I kept movement to a minimum. He became a willing photographic model, strutting his stuff with wings spread wide, tail up and making a wide variety of calls. While we reached a pretty good understanding, it’s fair to say that Red Wing was not the most popular bird in the neighborhood thanks to the big chip on his shoulder!
Red-winged blackbirds are one of the most common birds in the Eastern US, although their numbers have fallen 30 percent since 1966 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Their global population is estimated at near 130 million. To find these lovely birds, look for marshes, brushy fields and the edges of streams or ponds. One of my favorite hangouts for blackbirds is Houghton Graves Preserve on Orr’s Island, also a fine place to spot migrating warblers in May. In the winter, red-winged blackbirds gather in large flocks near grain fields, sometimes numbering in the millions when combined with other blackbirds and starlings. I have watched them feeding in standing corn during November, stuffing themselves with so much food that they can hardly move once they return to a nearby perch.
These lovely birds can be found across most of North America and well into Central America during the winter. Since blackbirds have been documented as living up to 15 years, there is a good chance Red Wing will be around for a couple more years unless his aggressive nature lands him in trouble with a raptor. Lots of predators are on the hunt for blackbirds or their eggs including raccoons, foxes, snakes, mink, ravens, and grackles.
Because of their taste for grains like corn and wheat, many blackbirds used to fall prey to irate farmers unhappy about losing some of their crops to the birds, but migratory bird protections have left farmers few options when big flocks descend upon their fields. Estimates from the field indicate the birds take less than one percent of average harvests, but that is still a lot of grain.
It will be interesting to see if Red Wing returns next spring to terrorize the other birds in our neighborhood, or if he moves on to a new territory. I have enjoyed hearing him on my way to the paper box in the morning, and he has generally been one of the last birds calling late in the evening. Maybe Red Wing will mellow with age…