For the Birds Radio Program: Fall Red-winged Blackbirds

Original Air Date: Nov. 3, 2008 Rerun Dates: Nov. 1, 2010

Laura’s friend Jan Kraemer asks why Red-wings would be singing their song in the fall.

Duration: 4′42″


Last week, my friend Jan Kraemer, who along with her husband Larry has been continuing the tradition of spring warbler walks in Duluth, wrote me an email reading: Hi Laura, I have a bird question that I can’t find any information about.  On my morning walk for three days last week near the same wetland, I heard a red-winged blackbird singing.  It was a shorter and softer version but recognizable as a spring territory song. He seemed to be totally by himself. Have you heard red-wings singing their spring song in the fall?  It was beautiful to hear on a cold foggy fall day but I am wondering if this is common and I have somehow just missed hearing them this time of year or if he was just being an individual and doing something different.  Maybe a younger bird practicing?  He was not up in the open like in the spring, but down in the rushes almost hidden.” I received Jan’s letter right when I, too, had been hearing and seeing one lone Red-winged Blackbird in the marsh down the road from my apartment in Ithaca, New York, when I’ve been walking Photon. My bird is an adult who sings from both the cattails and the top of a tall tree on the edge of the marsh. The tree is bare and the marsh brown, looking like they will when the red-wings come back at winter’s end, and day-length is about what it will be in late February or the beginning of March, too. Birds are supposed to sing in response to lengthening daylight hours, not simply the number of hours and minutes of daylight, but apparently Jan’s and my redwings didn’t get that memo. As their breeding season ends in summer, redwings join mixed flocks of blackbirds and starlings and descend upon agricultural fields, especially for corn, sunflower, rice, and winter wheat. Red-wings, considered the most abundant songbirds in North America in the 1990s, were far less abundant when European settlers came to America. By providing waste grain and winter wheat that subsidized the birds in winter, people ensured that there would be more, not fewer, hormonal birds come spring, and so redwings started breeding outside marshes as well as continuing the normal species breeding behavior. In spring, males start spending their early morning and late afternoon hours in marshes, acquiring and defending territories and sleeping overnight. When they first arrive on those marshes the water is frozen and many of the cattails topped with fresh snow, so after their territorial displays the birds fly off to spend most of the day in their feeding flocks, flying as much as 50 miles each way between their territorial marshes and their feeding areas. The handful of birds engaged in territorial displays and singing right now can get more food on the marshes than they will in spring, but they, too, spend most of their day in feeding flocks. Every bird is different from others of its kind. As with just about all birds, the sex organs of Red-winged Blackbirds shrink when the breeding season is over—just excess baggage—but it happens in some birds faster, and in some birds more slowly, than average. The birds singing in marshes in autumn are apparently still feeling a bit hormonal. It won’t hurt them any and it probably feels pretty good to have a whole huge marsh to themselves for once. And it’s a feast for my eyes, those two brilliant scarlet patches glowing in the brown marsh, like the last brilliant maple leaves still clinging on to make just a spot of color against the dark orange and brown oak leaves and bare branches. And just like those final maple leaves, these red patches will soon disappear for the duration, an ephemeral but lovely gift of the changing season