On my way to work this morning, I experienced my first sighting of a Red-winged Blackbird. Now some may get excited about a groundhog seeing its shadow, but one of my first clues of spring’s coming is seeing these migratory friends return from their winter vacation in the south.
According to the Audubon Society, the flash of the male Red-winged Blackbird’s red shoulder patches and his exuberant “oak-a-ree!” song, heralds spring for most North Americans. This songbird’s genus name, Agelaius, means “flocker” and aptly describes the enormous masses it forms, often with other blackbirds, outside the breeding season.
Red-winged Blackbirds range across the entire continental United States, southward into the Caribbean and into Middle America as far south as El Salvador, and most of Canada (in the breeding season). Populations are most dense in the farmlands of the Midwest, Northeast, and far West. Generally, Red-winged Blackbirds winter wherever they can find open water and food.
Red-winged Blackbirds are habitat generalists, breeding in a variety of salt and fresh water habitats. They also use farmlands and the edges of woods in summer. Wintering flocks roost in wetlands with dense vegetation, and forage over wetlands, farmlands, and other open areas, including mud flats, residential yards, and parks. That’s why you may spot them perching on bullrushes in wetland areas.
But here’s something I didn’t know. They use many techniques to capture prey, most notably “gaping.” Here, the bird inserts its closed bill into leaves, mud, or a seed, then opens its bill to pry the material apart. During breeding, protein-rich insects make up the majority of the birds’ diet. Outside the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds mainly eat seeds.
Reproduction in Red-winged Blackbirds is complex, since both males and females make decisions that affect breeding. Males establish a territory and attract a mate by singing from a prominent perch and flashing their colorful shoulder patches. Females choose a mate, based in part on the quality of the territory. After the female selects a territory, the male chases her at top speeds, displaying in flight. Usually, more than one female breeds on a male’s territory.
The female Red-winged Blackbird selects the nest site, builds a cup of grasses, mud, and decayed vegetation, lined with fine grasses, and incubates 3 to 6 eggs. The pale blue-green or gray eggs are splotched and streaked with brown. After approximately 12 days, the helpless young hatch. Although males sometim es help, females are the primary caretakers of the fledglings, feeding them for up to 5 weeks.
Migrating in flocks of various sizes, Red-winged Blackbird populations are almost always on the move somewhere in their extensive range. Northern populations migrate to the southern United States, but winter as far north as New England. Southern populations are non-migratory.
I say “welcome” to our Red-winged Blackbird friends. More reliable the Punxsutawney Phil, you remind us that spring is not far behind.