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Red-Winged Blackbirds

Alexandra MacKenzie via flickr Creative Commons

Move over robins; red-winged blackbirds are the real harbingers of spring.

The male’s scratchy “oak-a-lee” songs are heard when the world is still blanketed with snow and maple sap is just beginning to flow. Males return north well before females, and the early bird does get the worm. In this case the metaphorical worm is prime breeding territory.

Wetlands can be frozen tight when males begin setting up their cattail territories. Frequent visits to backyard bird feeders supplement what natural food they’re able find. Groups of redwing males take care not to display their bright red wing patches when sharing a bird feeder, but back at the wetlands it’s another story.

A male’s territorial song is accompanied by aggressive displays of his red epaulets and that display serves an important function. In experiments where males’ red epaulets were painted black, most of the altered males lost their territories. The older a male, the larger his wing patches and the larger his territory. And, in some cases, his harem.

Credit Tulus Simatupang / Grand Prize Winner of the Nature Conservancy's 2013 Digital Photo Contest
Grand Prize Winner of the Nature Conservancy's 2013 Digital Photo Contest
Heron and Red-winged Blackbird, Burnaby Lake, British Columbia, Canada.

As many as 15 females were observed nesting in one male’s territory. With red-wings, the males’ main job is patrolling that territory, and they take their job seriously. Observe a cattail marsh and in time you’ll see a male, his two epaulets flexed in flight, giving noisy chase to a great blue heron passing by. I suspect the heron is oblivious to his comparatively pint-sized escort.

Credit Alexandra MacKenzie via flickr Creative Commons

Meanwhile, female red-winged blackbirds are seldom seen or heard. Their streaked, sparrow-like plumage blends in with their cattail world. Within that world, they stay out of sight getting the work done: building a nest, brooding eggs and then raising their young.


Chris Martin has worked for New Hampshire Audubon for over 31 years as a Conservation Biologist, specializing in birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons.

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