For the Birds Radio Program: Early Songbird Arrivals: 2009

Original Air Date: March 25, 2009 Rerun Dates: March 25, 2011; March 29, 2010

Red-winged Blackbirds, grackles, and robins are the first conspicuous songbirds to return in spring. What are they up to?

Duration: 4′22″


Magic Reappearing Act Every year right when we’re most desperate for a sign of spring—anything—suddenly a Red-winged Blackbird appears. Our first may well be a lone individual, but within days, suddenly they’re back en masse. In early mornings and late afternoons, they stake out their personal territorial perches in a cattail marsh and call their okalee song, filled with exuberance and testosterone. Sure enough, every one of the first ones to arrive is a male—females come weeks later. At first the marshes are too frozen for birds to find food in them, but that’s okay. Throughout most of the day they descend in huge numbers upon farm fields and at bird feeders. For the most part, they get along with each other in these feeding flocks, keeping their red epaulets hidden and their testosterone under control. Of course, with so much raw testosterone flowing in their veins, a bird will occasionally call and display, but for the most part they restrict their territoriality to early morning and evening until the ice is gone and insects are starting to stir, when they’ll start remaining in the marshes all day long.

Hot on the tracks of the red-wings are Common Grackles. I always seem to see my first grackles in flight, and this time of year they’re easy to identify because, like the Red-wings, the first ones to return are charged up males. In flight, grackles hold their keeled tails to exaggerate the length and the pointed tip. Their iridescent heads and black body plumage are at their sleekest and brightest in spring, too. Like the redwings, the arrival of grackles is expected and predictable, but there’s still a joy of recognition when they show up. Soon they’ll be on lawns all over the place, puffing up their feathers to look as large and macho as possible.

Robins often appear first at wetlands and on farm fields rather than on lawns, and those birds are often in large, fairly quiet flocks. Temperatures are still averaging in the 30s when the first robins of spring appear in our yards —those are the ones that separate themselves out from the flocks and burst into song on their territories. Like redwings, the first robins are all males, and every bit as pumped up with masculine intensity as redwings and grackles, as anyone who’s ever had a robin shadowboxing with their window can attest.

We often get snowstorms into April, but spring snows quickly melt, and even when cold spells last a week or more, redwings, grackles, and robins are well-designed to cope and to survive. Their spring plumage is still bulked up with a huge supply of underlying down feathers to insulate them, and rich stores of body fat help them stay alive when a blizzard keeps them from feeding much. The two blackbirds can eat seeds when no bugs are about, and robins do just fine on the last of the winter berries and crabapples and even some of last year’s waste grains when the surface of the soil is too cold for earthworms.

These early spring birds’ abilities to adapt can be truly inspiring. When we’re putting on our heavy winter jackets and grabbing the snow shovel yet again, wondering if winter will ever leave, those birds are flying about naked as jaybirds, confident that despite the minor setback, spring already is here. They should know–they’ve staked their lives on it.