For the Birds Radio Program: Red-winged Blackbird

Original Air Date: April 5, 2002

A reliable sign of spring grabs for all the gusto it can get.

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One of the most welcome signs of spring for many people is common bird–most ornithologists even consider it the most abundant bird in North America Red-winged Blackbirds return to northland marshes in spring as soon as ice starts breaking up, and we start to see them as much as two months before the big flood of spring migration kicks in during May. Although Redwings can legitimately be considered wetland birds, we often find them at bird feeders, especially during migration, and often feeds in agricultural areas.

The red-winged blackbird is a very appropriately named bird. There’s something thrilling about seeing a group of males on their nesting territories, all perched atop cattails, showing off their scarlet epaulets and making their distinctive call, which an imaginative ornithologist once described as “Okalee.” We also hear them making whistled calls-since these are low-grade warnings, given when slow-moving predators are present, there’s little wonder why we hear this one so often.

Male redwings invest an enormous amount of energy into defending their territories against one another, and into attracting mates. They accomplish both goals by virtue of their red epaulets and their vocalizations. Each male will mate with every female he can possibly entice onto his territory, but is willing to shoulder the responsibilities too. Male redwings help feed their young, and if a male has lured three or four females onto his territory, he may well end up assisting with the care and feeding of 16 or more babies.

Males also serve a protective role, chasing off potential predators that may fly over. Many people notice redwings divebombing crows–anytime a crow ventures near a marsh, the first redwings to spot it try to drive it away before it can notice any nests. That’s because redwing nests are substantial enough to support the weight of a crow, and if a crow notices one, it eventually drops down to steal the eggs or nestlings. Redwings also chase hawks, eagles, and other perceived enemies. These birds are much larger and stronger than redwings, but slower and less maneuverable in flight, so redwings can dive bomb them without risking being hurt. Once when I rode my bicycle along a road that cut through a redwing marsh, I suddenly started hearing a little clicking sound. I looked into my rear-view mirror to see a redwing striking my red and white bicycle helmet, which did its job so well that I couldn’t feel the strikes at all. Redwings weigh only about two ounces, so the biggest wallop they can manage isn’t much-when you consider that an average Bald Eagle weighs more than 80 times that, or that a hundred pound human weighs 800 times that, redwings must abound in courage as well as feistiness.

I see redwings in my own backyard, perched atop telephone wires near a big shopping center in Duluth, and in all kinds of marginal habitat-this is an abundant bird, after all. But somehow, seeing them wherever they tum up, grabbing for all the gusto they can get, I feel a deep satisfaction to be living on a planet filled with such brilliant and delightful joys everywhere I look.