Fascinated by birds, especially a blackbird with red shoulder patches, a native of North and Central America? Then read on to discover and learn all about this truly fascinating entity of nature, generally known as the Red-winged blackbird and also known by its scientific name Agelaius Phoeniceus.
From Dark-eyed Juncos, starlings, and Red-eyed Vireo to bald eagles, North and Central America is home to numerous such bird species. Well, the Red-winged blackbird happens to be one such species.
Get Acquainted With Red-Winged Blackbird
Residing somewhere in North or Central America? Then coming across a Red-winged blackbird perched on a tree branch in the backyard, park, or on the ground, fences and concrete walls will not be a rare phenomenon. It is because this Icteridae bird family member with the scientific name Agelaius Phoeniceus occupies the majority share of the bird population of North and Central America.
Results from bird population census held in North and Central America show that over 250 million birds of this Red-winged blackbird species are present on this continent, crowning it as the largest species of birds in North and Central America over other species like Starlings and Dark-eyed Juncos.
From being a short-distance migratory bird to an extremely territorial one, Red-winged blackbirds possess a one-of-a-kind nature or behavior. With males settling for elevated venues like trees, fences, and telephone wires, females tend to lurk around lower grounds, vegetation, and marshes all the while searching for perfect nesting spots.
Even though Red-winged blackbirds are exceedingly territorial, still they prefer to operate in flocks, especially males. By flocking with starlings during foraging they take this socially active behaviour to next level. Flocking is mandatory during migration in both winter and spring.
Nature has always taken credit for the creation of some of the most amazing beings, who are unique in terms of nature, behavior, and appearance. Ever seen a documentary on birds? If yes, then you might be aware of the fact that the appearance of male and female birds belonging to the same species tends to differ.
Many might have heard that males of many bird species are considered more beautiful than female ones. Well, this assumption is quite true for the Red-winged blackbird species.
Male Red-Winged Blackbirds
The name ‘Red-winged blackbird’ is derived from the killer looks of males of this species only. Adult males dawn shiny black coats along with abstract shapes of red patches on the shoulder. A sharply pointed bill along with a ‘not very long ‘ and a ‘not very short’ tail completes the story.
Usually tail of a Red-winged blackbird possesses an infinitesimal round cut, which can only be noticed when the tail is spread out or when the bird is airborne. Other than this property, usually, the tail of a male Red-winged blackbird is completely black, just like its body.
Even the bills, claws, and eyes of the male Red-winged blackbirds are the perfect shade of black. Red shoulder patches called epaulettes on the black satiny coat of male Red-winged blackbirds act as an insignia for this species.
Have you ever spotted red or crimson-coloured patches on the wings of a bird with a lustrous black coat, in North or Central America? If yes, then be 100% sure that it is indeed a male red-winged blackbird because females are not at all black.
Female Red-Winged Blackbird
Have you ever seen an adult female red-winged blackbird? Rest assured that you haven’t and if you have then you might not have recognized one. The question arises why so?
Well, because females are not at all black and don’t possess any red or crimson shoulder patches. Even if you spot a female red-winged blackbird, it is safe to say that you won’t recognize one, until and unless you are an avid bird admirer.
Yellowish hues around the face especially on the chin, and brows along with a faint red or rust tint on the shoulders are some of the distinct physical features of female Blackbirds. There is not anything prominent about the tail, except that the tails of females are not black, but possess the same round cut.
Female Red-winged blackbirds possess sharp triangular beaks too, but they are dark brown. Also, till the middle of the upper portion of the bottom beak, the color remains quite light and clear.
Adult females of this species usually dawn a dark brown-streaked coat with no sign of black or red in sight. Again, male-dominated society here as well. The name itself is derived from the appearance of male ones and not females.
Don’t confuse young males with female red-winged blackbirds. Young plumage and adult plumage differ at various levels. Beautiful dark brown-striped feather coats are very similar to females and are dawned by the male birds of this species during the so-called teenage or adolescent period of their life.
Golden eyebrows and a pale orange hue at the joint of the wing are some characteristics found in a male transitioning from juvenile to adult of this species. Also, young birds of this species tend to have pale yellow in the abdomen area and yellowing feather frills.
Usually, the medium-length tail of juvenile Red-winged blackbirds remains dark brown until they turn adult when the tail turns black. 2-3 years is the maximum time limit required for a juvenile male Red-winged blackbird to become sexually active.
Every bird has a distinctive call of its own just like human voices. From the ‘hoot-a- hoot; hoo hoo’ of owls to ‘chiddik chiddik’ of sparrows, each has a signature sound of its own. Similarly, the Red-winged blackbirds have a distinctive sound or call as well.
A constant loud, rapid, stretched ‘tee-err’ are common sound coming from Red-winged blackbirds when alarmed. While a croaky, piercing ‘Conk-anh-reeeeee’ is the general chirping tune of this species.
Flapping Pattern of Wings
Reaching far-off destinations on time is a cakewalk for Red-winged blackbirds. Making rapid flappings at a fast pace to cut through the air, along with the spreading out of the tail enables birds of this species to cover massive distances during migration and foraging.
Learn About What Red-Winged Blackbirds Eat
From cracked corn, black oil sunflower seeds, wild fruit, and waste grain to hulled sunflower seeds and various other seeds, Red-winged blackbirds eat all these and more. Red-winged blackbirds tend to form large flocks or gang up with other blackbirds and passerine birds like Starlings while foraging.
Beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, millipedes, snails, and insects, are the top-rated delicacies of their meal plan. From on the ground to the trees and shrubs, Red-winged blackbirds can go anywhere looking for these delicacies. If you like feeding birds then go ahead and feed them. But don’t complain when the flocks come thronging at you, because at times it can become quite unsettling.
Benefits of Red-winged Blackbird’s Diet Plan
As written above, insects, weeds, and herbs are the most loved delicacies in the Red-winged blackbird’s diet chart. In spring during the breeding season, there are almost large and small flocks of 8 million red-winged blackbirds residing in Northern America.
These gigantic flocks include both adults and chicks and they all together consume approximately 5.4 million kilograms of insects and unwanted herbs. Now, this devouring nature of Red-winged blackbirds benefits humans by ensuring natural and free pest control.
Along with that, this diet menu of Red-winged blackbirds also restricts the growth of unwanted shrubs and herbs, which in turn ensures the growth of large trees.
Drawbacks of Red-winged Blackbirds Eating Habits
On one hand, the eating habits of Red-winged blackbirds may benefit humans by providing a natural pest control system, while on the other hand, its meal plans can prove to be devastating for farmers.
If insects are the staple of the Red-winged blackbird’s diet then agricultural products like corn, sunflower seeds, rice, and sorghum are the specialty delicacies of their meal chart. Faced with the threat of habitat loss, these species are turning towards alternative nutritional options like farm fields full of corn, rice, and other grains.
Devouring large farm fields in a few days is just a piece of cake for massive flocks of Red-winged blackbirds. But. this devouring act can result in huge losses for the owner of those farm fields.
Nowadays, farmers would go to extreme lengths of installing traps and using poisons and surfactants to protect their crops from Red-winged blackbirds. Protecting crops is not just the only aim here, by using these techniques they intend to lessen the population of this bird species.
From using electronic alarm systems, scarecrows, and helium gas balloons to using chemicals like 4-aminopyridine, farmers would use any means to protect their crops.
Beware of the Nest Predators
If we go by the food chain, then even the predator becomes prey from time to time. Just like beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers are meals for this species, the Red-winged blackbirds also make scrumptious meals for other larger birds and animals.
Much larger animals namely raccoons, long-tailed weasels, American minks, and small animals like two species of hawk- the red-tailed, and short-tailed ones, and plain garter snakes are a few of the well-known predators who all prey on this one species- the Red-winged blackbird.
Unfortunately, during nesting season if a nest containing eggs or chicks is left unguarded, then nest predators comprising of ravens and other passerine bird species like Marsh wrens would barge in and destroy the eggs or murder the nestlings by pecking ruthlessly.
Learn the Migratory Tradition
Swamps, marshes, or any kind of wetland is considered the ideal habitat for this species, but the human tendency of destroying nature has made habitat loss an inevitable scenario for these species.
Faced with the threat of habitat loss, birds like red-winged blackbirds have no other option other than to move toward human civilizations. Exactly why, spotting a Red-winged blackbird in your backyard or near your farm fields is not a rare phenomenon anymore.
Fortunately, there are still some people running organizations and institutions like the National Audubon Society, which are working towards the conservation of these unique birds and their habitats. If you intend to know more about this organization then please visit the National Audubon Society.
Red-winged blackbirds embark on migratory trips twice a year. Once in early spring from Mid February till Mid May and again at the beginning of the fall season- in winter from August and last through October.
The migratory pattern of the Red-winged Blackbird includes spring migration toward middle America and winter migration towards south America. Researches show that Male red-winged blackbirds tend to arrive before females in spring, while following the ‘Ladies first’ attitude in winter,i.e. leaving after the females in winter.
Also, it is observed that these Red-winged blackbirds be it, male or female, migrate in large flocks and cover distances only during the day.
The breeding season of this species begins at the last of April and lasts till the end of July,i.e during the spring. And once the breeding season comes to an end and these birds are done raising 2-3 broods, they leave for winter migration.
In the above paragraphs only it is mentioned that male Red-winged blackbirds arrive before the females during spring but tend to leave after females during winter. Now, there is a reason why males tend to forget the ‘ladies first’ attitude in spring.
Actions of Territorial Males
Males return before females in spring to mark their territories in the wetlands, swamps, and marshes. Not only would these territorial males guard their territories against the rest of the male Red-winged blackbirds or other birds, but would also show hostile behavior towards other beings whom they deem as a threat. It can even be humans.
Mating is not the only purpose behind marking territories. Territory claimed by a male bird is called a nesting territory as well because the females after mating would build nests and lay eggs in that territory to remain under the protective wings of males.
As immature males lack experience and expertise, hence they face greater challenges in staking claim of territories or securing females for mating. Sometimes it is quite hard to hold ground against an experienced and expert male. Being polygynous, males can’t remain committed to one female for their whole life.
Male Red-winged blackbirds may keep oscillating between more than one mate as many as 10 -15 females for mating per breeding season. And these 10 or 15 females would be building up their nests in that particular male Red-winged blackbird’s territory to receive protection from the male.
The whole act of flaunting red shoulder patches by squaring the shoulders and unfurling the wings, along with straightening out the tails all the while leaning forward is the common behavior displayed by the males to secure a mate or scare off potential competition.
Actions of Females
Females tend to arrive a little later than the males in spring from their winter migration, just to let the males have a headstart in their territorial wars. Like males, even female Red-winged blackbirds can’t stay faithful to their social mate and frequently mate with other male Red-winged blackbirds.
Since female Red-winged blackbirds don’t limit to one male, hence eggs laid by females have differing paternity. And a female Red-winged blackbird can keep delivering offspring for about 10 years.
Facts about Red-Winged Blackbird Nests
Unlike other birds, Red-winged blackbirds don’t opt for high tree branches or higher ground for building their nests. Although the elevation of the nests may vary between 3 inches to 14 feet above water bodies, this species prefers marshes and wetlands as their habitat and thus tend to build their nest in cattails, sedges, grasses, rushes, and willow bushes.
Once the nesting season sets in motion, the adult female Red-winged blackbirds get on with the work of weaving nests into bowl-like shapes with the sedges, grasses, and mosses held in place with the fastening of reeds and lining of mud.
Configuration of Eggs
Almost 2 -3 clutches comprising a maximum of five eggs are laid by a single female Red-winged blackbird during each breeding season tenure. On rare occurrences, you may find up to 6 eggs in a single batch.
Eggs of this blackbird species are oval, smooth, and possess a light glossy tint. But patches of purple, brown, and black on the pale bluish-green texture of the eggs set it apart from the eggs of other birds. For the next 11 to 12 days after being laid, eggs undergo an incubation period which is again taken care of by females.
Blind, wrinkly skinned, and naked, i.e. body devoid of any feather, chicks rear their heads up on the hatching of the eggs. Both parents actively participate in raising these ‘not-so-good-looking’ chicks into beautiful beings.
While males are responsible for defending the nests against the main threat of nest predators, females are tasked with incubating and nurturing the nestlings. Both male and female parents take turns in feeding the chicks, but if calculated then the female does the majority of feeding, while males keep a watch for any potential threats.
Once hatched, young birds would remain in the nest for the next 9- 12 days under the care of their parents until they are able enough to fly off. Even though adult red-winged blackbirds can’t swim, young ones can swim short distances in dire situations like falling off the nest.
- In California, you may come across a type of male Red-winged blackbird who all lack the yellow border around their red-shoulder patches. Well, these birds are a California subspecies of Red-winged blackbirds and are referred to as ‘California Bicolored Blackbirds.’
- Records show that a Red-winged blackbird can survive up to 15 years. It has been mentioned that the oldest Red-winged blackbird has a life tenure of 15 years from 1967 to 1983, which can be found in the records. While researchers state that in the wild. a Red-winged blackbird can survive a minimum length of 2 years.
- Migrating flocks of Red-winged blackbirds can retain a speed of 30m/hr.
- These birds also possess a unique ability to hop backward while searching for food. This backward hopping has been given a name as well called the ‘ Double Scratch’.
- Not many birds can perform this ‘Reverse gear’ activity.
- Though hummingbirds can fly backward they can’t actually hop backward.
- In Canada, the arrival of Red-winged blackbirds in spring is considered one of the first signs indicating the beginning of Spring.
Completing the Flight Tale
In this write-up, we have tried to summarize almost all characteristics, nature, and behaviour of both female and male Red-winged blackbirds, even so, you cannot deny the fact that there is still a lot left to know about this amazing creation of nature.
From appearance to nature or behaviour, these creatures are unique in every aspect and are jewels of nature. But unfortunately, the mindless activities of humans are causing these birds to face threats like habitat loss, food loss, and disrupting their natural behaviours. But let us not lose hope for these beings, as mentioned previously that organizations like the National Audubon Society are still in motion.
Knowing and understanding an amazing creature like the Red-winged blackbird from some informative writings doesn’t compare with the experience of observing it up close. So if you are an avid bird lover, then it is better to observe them up close in their natural habitat.
Numerous researches and recordings have been carried out by scholars on this bird species to understand it as much as possible. But even so, not all the facts, figures, and characteristics are known, and there is more to be unravelled. So don’t just stop here, keep unravelling new information regarding the Red-winged blackbird.