For the Birds Radio Program: Red-winged Blackbird

Original Air Date: April 12, 1989

A real harbinger of spring is here. (3:30) Date verified.

Audio missing


Red-winged Blackbirds

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird)

If you have any doubt that spring is really here, take a walk through any marsh–the redwings will persuade you for good. Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote, “Everyone who notices birds at all notices the red-winged blackbird…at least they recognize it as a black bird with red on its wings…It could hardly be overlooked by even the most casual observer as the male flies up to announce his presence and display his colors.”

Red-wings arrived back in the Northland in numbers around Easter this year. These first migrants are just about exclusively adult males. They spend much of the day feeding in flocks, on grain stubble and weed seeds, but ever morning and late afternoon they spread out in marshes, perched on the top of a shrub or on an old cattail stalk. In a cold wind they fluff themselves up, and only the yellow margin of their epaulet shows, but if you watch one for a few moments, suddenly something will trigger its territorial display, and it will squeak out its okalee song, exposing its brilliant red shoulders for all the world to see.

In 1912, Frank Chapman wrote, “It is quite possible that in the summer this rude chorus might fail to attract enthusiasm, but in the spring it is as welcome and inspiring a promise of the new year as the peeping of frogs or the blooming of the first wild flower.”Red-wings squabble quite a bit as they settle into their territories, especially as wetlands shrink, causing more and more birds to partition less and less space. But redwings do manage to draw their borders in a far more civilized fashion than most human beings–they talk it out–or should I say sing it out. By the time the females arrive a few weeks after the males, all the disputes have been solved relatively peacefully, without the need for assault rifles, nuclear weapons, or Morton Downey Jr. The females apparently key in on the best nest sites rather than any personal qualities of the males, and the males with the finest land holdings often end up with more than one mate. Males share the responsibilities of raising the young, and the more mates they have, the more work they end up doing.

Although Red-wings have always been birds of wetlands, as the marshes disappear, more and more of them have invaded other habitats where they are less welcome. The population of many wetland birds steadily declines, but redwings are remaining stable or even increasing now that they can also nest in shrubby fields and agricultural areas. This is one of the blackbird species that causes millions of dollars of losses to grain in the lower Midwest each winter. They come to Northland feeders, during migration and then again in late summer after the nesting season is over, and are especially fond of mixed seed, cracked corn, and sunflower. At their worst they’re never as obnoxious or as abundant as grackles, and at their best, when you’re walking through a marsh on a blustery April morning, their song is the cheeriest and most welcome sound in the world.

(Recording of a Red-winged Blackbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”