In the winter months our feeder was Grand Central for the blue jays. Now they’ve become scarce and have been replaced by the red-winged blackbirds, believed by some ornithologists to be the most abundant land bird in North America. They are found from the Pacific to the Atlantic and prefer wetland habitat for nesting. Members of the Troupial Family (meaning to gather in large flocks or troupes) they are often found traveling during the spring and fall migration with common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds, also members of the same family.
Male red-winged displaying his colorful epaulettes
We watch for Red-winged blackbirds in the rural areas as a sign that spring is really on its way. The male with his stunning red and yellow shoulder epaulets is the first to arrive, finding the best marsh habitat for his future mate(s) and offspring. He will perch on the tops of old brown cattails, or on electrical wires above a marsh singing his “conk-a-reee” or “o-ka-reee” (take your pick) song at the top of his lungs. The females arrive a few weeks later and then the action really picks up. The same is true around our feeder
Based on banding records, it is believed that most adult redwings return to the same nesting area. They can run into problems when a wetland has been destroyed in their absence and they are forced to look for new habitat. In nature there are no blank spaces. All habitats will be utilized to their fullest and birds who no longer have a nesting territory must fight the residents of another. More than likely they will lose out and not reproduce.
The red-wings that come to our yard are using it as their feeding territory. Around 73% of their diet is made up of vegetable matter (seeds) and 27% is animal (insect) matter, including things like the gypsy moth caterpillars, forest tent caterpillars and cankerworms – all considered detrimental to our forests. At our feeders they are most interested in the black sunflower seeds, though they prefer the hulled sunflower seeds and other kinds of bird seed.
These birds are very gregarious, especially during the spring breeding season. I’ve had a chance to watch some of their behavior in our front yard as both the males and females gather to feed. As a group of the females sociably scavenged among the wild bird seeds on the ground, a bold male sought to impress the ladies. He landed near them and dropped both wings so that the tips nearly dragged on the ground. Then he lifted his ‘shoulders’ so that his flashy epaulets looked like red pillows. To add to this pompous display he managed to vibrate his wings a bit.
He singled out a female who had wandered away from the others and as she diligently ignored him, he trailed behind, in hopes of getting her attention and seeing his impressive plumage. She continued to ignore him and finally giving up, he folded his wings and joined in the bird seed scavenging efforts. If his ego was bruised, he hid it well.
Males will also chase one another through the trees in the front yard. Their speed and ability to maneuver around branches while flying is really impressive. The flights generally end with the two males perched not far away from one another and calling out their “check” or “chuck’ single note call.
Some males in their drive to get as many of their genes into the pool will have multiple mates, which works as long as he is able to defend his territory from marauding males intent on the same goal. It also means he will have that many more hungry mouths to feed, which in the end could mean a smaller survival rate of his offspring.
If you find yourself in a marshy area around the nesting season wear a hat or be prepared for some close encounters with hyper vigilant male red-wingeds. They will valiantly defend their nest from predators of any size, and that is what they consider us, even if we’re just accidental and innocuous visitors.
By Kate Crowley
Photos by Mike Link