Nine inches of black feathers - he stretches his neck skyward, opens his pointed bill and pours forth nasally , gurgling phrases, sounds which could only be called a “song” by another of this species. As he sings, his wings open in flightless display, and red epaulets flash with sun-drenched brilliance even on the grayest of days. The Red-wing Blackbird has returned.
In any year, regardless of the depth of the snow pack, the thickness of the ice on the pond, or the piled up disarray in the rivers and streams, when the Red-winged Blackbird proclaims his “conk-a-reee,” Winter is on the run, and Spring is imminent.
Some months ago, I did a post on my blog (tailsofbirding.net) dismissing the popular notion that the robin is a sign of Spring. In our southeastern Vermont neighborhoods, the American Robin can be seen, and is seen, every month of the year. The coldest January day or the snowiest February day does not preclude the presence of robins.
Following the post, I received an email from a reader in Great Britain who told me that swallows are their sign of Spring. “Is that true in Vermont?” he asked. “If not, what bird is your sign of Spring?”
Swallows eat flying bugs, and they are not dependably present until Spring has completely defeated Winter (more or less). Tree Swallows may arrive fitfully in early April, but they are not secure in our area until late April.
|Male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive in Vermont in early March.|
In our neighborhoods, I wrote to my correspondent, the sign of Spring is the Red-winged Blackbird. He arrives in southeastern Vermont on March 7, plus or minus two or three days. (Parentheses: a male Red-winged Blackbird was reported in Westminster in early February, but I think that poor guy was more than a little confused.)
Some Red-winged Blackbirds may winter as near as the Connecticut coast, but most gather much further south in flocks which may number in the thousands. They wander through farmland, marshes, forest edges and open fields, gleaning whatever food might be available.
The flocks are segregated; the boys hang with the boys and the girls with the girls. Among the boys, there is no rivalry, no posturing, no conflict. That only happens when the hormones begin their annual surge. By then the males are moving northward and the flocks are dispersing.
|Winter flocks are typically male or female|
When the drab females come along in another few weeks, by and large the males will have settled their real estate disputes. They’ll be ready to urge one or more females to make their territory home for a season.
The Red-winged Blackbird does not draw much attention from bird watchers except in March when it is one of the earliest of the summer residents to return (cowbirds and grackles often accompany them). It is a successful and adaptable species. Except during our Vermont winters, there is no shortage. It is one of those birds which should make it onto every day list of birds seen. So common is the Red-winged Blackbird, that it is easy to overlook its beauty ... and its toughness - it is a scrappy bundle of feathers.
|Red-wings and song proclaim a male's territory|
The females get almost no help from the male in raising the kids. He is too busy defending his territory and ... well, you know. There are several factors which may explain why females choose to concentrate their nests in a single male’s territory. First, a good male has a good territory with plenty of food resources for the growing kids, and that means she can do the job without a lot of help from him. It is also theorized that multiple nests may provide “safety in numbers.” A vigilant male can warn of predators, and may even be able to intimidate predators.
|Female Red-winged builds the cup nest, incubates, and raises young.|
A few summers ago I needed to confirm the breeding presence of the Red-wing Blackbird within my assigned area for the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas project. There was no lack of blackbirds in the marshy fringes of the beaver pond, but I needed to find harder evidence. So I cautiously ventured into the soggy grasses. The slight change of angle enabled me to see a couple of nests - bulky open cups which were lashed to the reeds. But I quickly retreated. I had taken only a few steps - enough to send the Red-wings flying into hysteria. They fluttered over head, heaping maledictions on my head. They raced from reed to reed to shrub wailing at my intrusion into their domestic realm. Seldom have I felt less welcome.
I was a rather bumbling researcher in the Red-winged Blackbirds’ marsh. The real threats for which the sentinel males must stay on the alert, are predators. The male’s protective task is daunting - or he is not very good at it. Several studies have shown that about 40% of eggs and nestlings are lost to predators. The most common predators are raccoons, mink, and the Marsh Wren. Yes, Marsh Wren, a bird which is about half the size of the Red-winged Blackbird. It punctures eggs and kills young, but not for food. The Marsh Wren, like the voluble backyard House Wren, does not easily tolerate a mixed species neighborhood.
|Female Red-winged Blackbird with food for her young.|
“Conk-a-reeee!” We may still have heavy, gray skies. Snow flakes may still fall. We may still have a winter storm to wait out. But when you hear the Red-winged Blackbird gargle, you know that it is Spring!
|With epaulets showing, male Red-winged Blackbird intimates rivals and drives them from his territory.|