Thursday, April 10, 2014

Native Species Profile - Red-winged Blackbird

Spring migration is in full force here in Mid-Michigan.  Many of the birds that had come down from Canada to spend their Winter here have returned north.  Other species that left Michigan laft fall for warmer climates have begun returning.  To me nothing indicates the return of Spring more than the return of the Red-Winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing its distinctive "conk-a-ree" song
Male Red-winged Blackbirds have been back in Mid-Michigan for about two weeks.  The males always return north before the females.  This species prefers wetlands as their primary habitat.  The males come back in late-March to stake their claim on prime habitat.  All of the males seem to arrive at once - one day there are none; the next day there is one every dozen yards along the roadside ditches.  The same scene can be found around lakeshores, ponds, and especially in cattail marshes.  When the males arrive, they quickly establish a pecking order with the more dominant males getting the better territories.

Red-Winged Blackbirds are one of the many species of birds that exhibit a property called sexual dimorphism - meaning that there is a visible difference between the male and female of the species.  Male Red-winged Blackbirds are very easy to identify with their distinctive color pattern.   The majority of their body is covered with glossy, iridescent black feathers.  Their shoulders are covered with a patch of vermillion red (red-orange), underlined by a narrow band of yellow feathers. The male is also notable for his "conk-a-ree" song with its emphasis on the trilling last syllable.  During the breeding season, males spend most of their time perched atop the tallest object in their territory, continuously repeating this call.  They want to be noticed.

Male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) displaying vermillion red shoulder patches underlined by yellow

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are not nearly as noticeable.  More than anything, the females resemble a large sparrow with a pattern of light and dark brown streaks.  She does have a small red patch on her shoulder, but this is rarely seen.  This drab coloration helps the female hide in here nest.  Nests are constructed low to the ground in shrubs or shoreline vegetation such as reeds and cattails.  The nests are cup-shaped, made of vegetation and mud, and lined with fine grasses.

Female Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) - note streaked coloration
Size-wise, the Red-Winged Blackbird is a chunky, medium to large-sized songbird.  It is slightly smaller than the American Robin and averages 6 1/2 to 9 inches in length with a 12 to 12 1/2 inch wingspan.

It feeds on insects and other invertebrates, often foraging along the waterline.  It also eats seeds and grains.  Red-winged Blackbirds will sometimes visit feeders, especially early in the Spring before breeding begins.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are very protective of their breeding areas.  The birds are polygynous - meaning that each male will often have more than one female nesting in his territory.  Any intruder, including humans, that intrudes in a male's territory will be severely scolded and often dive-bombed.  Males will often gang up to mob predators, often chasing hawks and other large birds out of their breeding areas. 

A person that strays to close to a nest may find that they too are attacked by the birds which sometimes swoop down and strike the top of the head.  This is nothing to get mad about - the birds are just doing what is natural to them when they perceive a threat.  If this happens to you, remember that you are intruding on their territory.  When you leave, they will leave you alone.

Basic Information

Red-winged Blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus

Size:  6 ½-9” long, 12-15 ½” wingspan

Habitat:  marshes, meadows, ponds, lakes, shorelines, wooded areas near wetlands

Eats:  insects, seeds, grains

Nest:  near ground, in shrubs or reeds/cattails, cup made of vegetation and mud, lined with grass

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