For The Birds

Redwings: Fierce Fighters with Sweet Songs
By John Trott, Contributing Writer

The male red-winged blackbird flips his tail and picks up seed on the ground under my bird feeder. He is a somber, jet-black bird with a narrow streak of pale yellow on his wing. Suddenly, he flies and erupts into a flash of scarlet, yellow and black. It is an astonishing change; a splendid sight. The brilliant red and yellow shoulder patches, hidden when the bird is at rest, are called epaulets, named for the similar adornments on the shoulders of some military uniforms. I know of no other bird that displays such startling color change when it goes from perching to flying.

The red-winged blackbird is one of the first birds to return and announce spring with his liquid, gurgling songs.

Just over seven inches long, the redwing — as it is often called — is found throughout the United States and is considered by some ornithologists to be one of the most numerous birds in America.

Like all blackbirds — grackles and cowbirds included — the redwing has a strong flocking instinct in the non-breeding season. Winter concentrations of redwings can number in the thousands. One flock in the Dismal Swamp of Virginia was estimated to contain over a million birds.

Female and first-year male redwings look like heavily streaked, brownish sparrows; sparrows with an unsparrow-like bill, however. The redwing’s bill is long and pointed, perfect for picking up grain and capturing insects.

The redwing is one of the first birds to return and announce spring with liquid, gurgling songs that sound somewhat like konk-a-ree; others transcribe it as ko-ka-lee. In 1906, ornithologist William Brewster wrote that this song is "...inexpressibly wild and pleasing." Scold notes are a flat-sounding chack. Redwings also call with a high, plaintive whistle.

Early spring arrivals are all males. Females arrive as much as two weeks later and take up residence in a marsh or on the border of a lake or farm pond where males have established breeding territory. A thick stand of cattails is ideal nesting habitat for redwings.

Early writers frequently mention the preferred breeding habitat of the redwing as a slough, pronounced as sloo or slew, a word not used much today. Its definition: a tidal flat or bottom-land of a river; also, an inlet from a river. In shorter terms, redwings like to be near water.

Males constantly display their red shoulder patches as an announcement of territorial rights. There is much flying about and display as males determine exact boundaries and constantly patrol their perimeters. Male redwings are often polygamous and patrol a territory in which two females have built nests. He mates with both and helps feed the young of two families.

The brown-streaked females select a patch of vegetation — often over water — in which they construct deep nests that eventually contain four to six eggs of striking beauty. The base color is pale bluish-white and the eggs are marked all over with squiggles, dots and lines of intense black.

Thoreau called these markings hieroglyphics and wondered who could translate the markings. "It is always writing of the same character and much diversified," he wrote.

Enter a marsh where redwings are nesting and the male immediately tells you of his mate’s nest nearby by fluttering over your head, displaying his red shoulders and uttering his scold notes. At times he appears close to an attack but it doesn’t happen; it is all menace and threat. Other male redwings join the chorus of complaint until the air is filled with their cries and flurries of black and red feathers.

Male redwings are so aggressive on breeding territory that they attack birds much larger than themselves. Ravens, hawks and ospreys that dare to fly over redwing home territory are fearlessly attacked.

I once watched as a vulture sailed over a salt marsh in South Carolina where redwings were nesting. A male flew up and attacked the big black bird repeatedly. A vulture, with its habit of eating carrion (dead meat), is no threat to a redwing. Yet the male redwing perceived the vulture as a menace.

The importance of the scarlet shoulder patches in attracting and securing a mate, and also in patrolling a territory, was well defined when an ornithologist captured a territorial male and temporarily covered his scarlet feathers with paint. Immediately the bird lost his mate and his territory! His mate did not recognize him and other males drove him from the marsh. Both were restored when the paint was removed.

Redwings were frequently shot in large numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Blackbirds descending on rice fields in the Southeast could be very destructive and were a serious problem for rice growers along the coast from Virginia south to Georgia. Close relatives of the redwing, the bobolinks, were shot by the thousands when, during fall migration, they descended onto rice fields to feed. To this day, bobolink populations have not recovered from the slaughter. Redwings have maintained populations at a healthy level.

So early do redwings fly north that Thoreau wrote on March 11, 1859: "The birds anticipate the spring; they come to melt the ice with their song." The redwing’s liquid call from the marsh is indeed splendid any time of the year.


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