Bird Profile: Red-winged Blackbird

Up here in the northern part of the continent, we know when spring is here when the robins arrive. These are not the only harbingers of warmer days however; the Red-winged Blackbird heralds the arrival of spring as well, the males arriving before the females to claim their territory.

One of the most abundant and widespread birds in North America, the male is a striking bird; all-black plumage save for his bright red and yellow wing epaulets. The female is a heavily streaked brown bird with a light streak over the crown and above the eye. Males have harems of females living in their marshes, these harems can sometimes number up to 15, but up to one half of the nestlings turn out to be sired by a male other than the territorial bird. During the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds are rarely seen far from water and are communal nesters, often nesting alongside other species of blackbirds. Once nesting is over, the Red-winged Blackbird forms flocks and go out to forage over the countryside, returning to marshes to roost at night.

Red-winged blackbirds are a common victim of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird but this does not seem to affect the former`s numbers. The young are mostly fed insects, and this is exactly what the female Red-winged Blackbird pictured above is doing; she is feeding insects to a fledgling hidden in the grass. The male does a remarkable job and helps feed  the fledglings in is territory; there can be quite a few young birds to feed!

Red-winged Blackbirds may be seen at any marsh, lake or pond in Calgary with cattails and bulrushes. Don`t forget to listen; you can always tell if there is a Red-winged Blackbird nearby if you can hear the males distinctive “Conk-la-ree“ song.

Posted by Matthew Sim

7 thoughts on “Bird Profile: Red-winged Blackbird

  1. Actually, I think you have Tri-color Blackbirds there, not Red-winged. Tri-colors have a white stripe, red-winged have a yellow stripe. It seems kind of odd, but that’s the way it works. These seem to have white stripes.

    • Tri-colored Blackbirds have a limited range on the west coast, from northern California down to Baja California. I believe these photos were taken on Calgary, so they should be Red-winged Blackbirds. Often the yellow stripe below the red epaulets is very pale, as in these birds, and in some lighting conditions they can look almost white.

      • Yeah, you are probably right, Swainsons. But they definitely look white. I’ve been familiar with red-wings since my grandma’s place back in the late 50s, early 60s and I never remember seeing one with bands that white. Anyway, I don’t think I have ever seen a tri-color in Arkansas, Texas or Colorado.

        Interestingly, our neighborhood (SE Denver) hawk family is a Swainson’s. Also, out of curiosity, we watch Heartland, which is supposed to be filmed just South of Calgary, and they play the sounds of red-wings in the background almost all the time, whether Summer or Winter. Are they really that prominent all year?

        • I assume you mean you have Swainson’s Hawks in your neighbourhood in the summer. They are all in Argentina now.

          Heartland is filmed here, but they must be using recordings of the birds. It’s not unheard-of for Red-winged Blackbirds to overwinter here, but in small numbers (usually single birds) and they don’t sing in winter.

          • Yeah, the Swainsons are quite prominent in the park a few block South of us and along our creek during the Summer. I saw a hawk a day or two ago but not well enough to indentify. Could well have been a red-tailed, although Peterson’s indicates that the Swainsons are “occasional” in the Winter so I am not personally convinced that they all go to Argentina.

            BTW, I understand it is a bit chilly up there right now. In Denver it is t-shirt and shorts weather, about 65 F! Probably a new record. But don’t fret, we’ll get our share when it cools down tomorrow or Friday.

  2. Fantastic photos Matthew, I’ll make sure your Grandma sees them next time she is at our house.

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