Red-winged Blackbirds are back. These birds are native to Ohio. Most abundant in wetlands, their range spans across the entire United States. The males are easy to recognize. They have been coming to our feeders, suet and seed. I have not seen a female yet, but they should be back soon. These blackbirds are a sure sign that unofficial spring is here. They are one of the first songbirds that return to breeding grounds after overwintering in the South. Red-wings are one of North America’s most common birds.
These “Spirits of the Marsh” are medium-sized birds with medium-length tails. They have a stocky body and a slim bill. Red-wings can walk, hop, and run. They fly. Males have glossy black feathers all over their bodies. Bright red and yellow epaulets grace their wing tops. Cornell University knows that as males get older, their black feathers get shinier. Their red wings also get brighter.
In contrast, drab females are well camouflaged. The girls are heavily streaked and dark brown. They have white eyebrows. She looks like a large sparrow. This appearance helps her blend in with her habitat. Even on the move in the undergrowth, females are harder to see. During nesting, that ability is even more important. Predators have a hard time finding her.
Early March and April is the time for peak migration and territorial behavior. Usually the males come back three to four weeks before the females. Males arrive first to secure the biggest and best area possible for future nest building. Older males find the highest quality territories and the fittest mates. Males perch high on electrical light poles, treetops, and wires. They want to be seen. These early birds may also find poor weather and little food waiting for them. Taking this chance can be worth it. It might mean beating other males to the best place to raise a family. This is a competition.
These males are fierce defenders of their breeding territory. They will defend it from other males. During spring and summer, this area provides the insects, worms, frogs, and snails that they eat. Mobbing, in the animal world, means that the prey go near, seek to drive away, and sometimes attack predators. No possible threat is completely safe. The males and females will mob hawks and owls. Cats, dogs, foxes, raccoons, and even humans are on that list.
Listen for their Conk-la-ree! Non-stop singing, each note a higher tone than the last, attracts a mate and sets up territory. Here-I-am! This-is-mine! Got-here-first! Stay-a-way! Fluffing plumage and tail spreading are ways that males defend their territory.
Red-wing males raise their shoulders to show off those red patches. Their flight display — flying at a slow speed for a more showy effect — is another technique from their bag of tricks. Most of the time males return to the same territory year after year. They do not mate for life. Average male territory size is half an acre. On average, five females will breed within one male’s territory. As many as fifteen females have bred within one male’s territory.
Nesting takes place in late March or early April. The female claims a smaller territory within the male’s territory. Habitat includes roadsides, wet meadows, and cattail marshes. Near water, females weave well-hidden nests of grass and plant materials (rushes and sedges) close to the ground around upright stems of thick vegetation, shrubs, or trees. They line the inside of the cup-shaped nest with wet leaves, rotting wood, mud, and fine grasses. If the nestling falls out of the nest into the water, it can swim short distances. Adults cannot swim. Nests are sometimes also in surprising places like prairies or upland fields.
May, if not sooner, is the peak time for egg-laying and incubation. An average clutch is three to four oval, light blueish-green eggs with spots of brown, purple, or black on the larger end of the eggs. The female sits on the eggs for about 12 days. When development is complete, both parents feed young a diet of mostly insects. Young leave the nest 10 to 13 days after hatching. Juvenile males look like females.
Females raise as many as three broods per season. By June, they are building new nests. This construction eliminates the possibility of parasites that could endanger baby birds. By July, the nesting season is nearing completion. Come August, the last young have left the nest. It is peak molting time. Those young ones are getting their flight feathers. September is the time for flocking. During migration and in winter, you may see mixed flocks of over 100 blackbirds. These flocks may include Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, European Starlings, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Their Greek name, Agelaius phoeniceus, means “scarlet flock member”.
At night, they roost together. During the day, they forage for food. They feed on grains and seeds during this time of the year. Migrating birds eat as much as they can. Weight gain prepares them for their migratory flight down south. Winter is on the way, and they know it.
Red-winged Blackbirds leave from mid-September to early November. The latter month is peak migration in our southern states and Great Plains. Females leave first, up to a month before the males. During this time, males hide their bright red wing plumage to avoid aggression. This allows all birds in the flock to eat in peace. One record indicated that about 140,000 Red-winged Blackbirds flocked together in Ottawa County, Ohio in November 7, 1989. That’s a lot of birds!
Many migratory birds migrate at night; Red-wings migrate during the day. All of this is weather-dependent. Predicting exact departure dates, especially far in advance, is as easy as being an accurate meteorologist.
Post a comment as anonymous
Watch this discussion.
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.