Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Looking for spring: red-winged blackbirds

There may be some red-winged blackbirds that remain year-round in the Pacific Northwest, but most of them have the good sense to heigh themselves off to some hot spot like Costa Rica for the winter. Around this time of year, I start watching for their return--these birds promise that spring is on the way.


Baby, I've got some prime lakefront property.
Photo by NDomer73 
The males show up first, vying for good nesting areas around ponds and roadside ditches. When a male finds a place likely to intrigue a female, he fluffs his feathers to reveal the crimson shoulder badges, proclaiming himself the law of the land and ready to defend his territory. An incoming male who doesn't want an argument travels undercover, with his own epaulets hidden under black feathers, while a challenger arrives with epaulets blazing.


The males sometimes get so riled up about their property rights that they initially run off the newly-arriving females. But the females are persistent, and will lurk around the property until he comes to his senses.

For many years it was known that male red-winged blackbirds are monogamous if there are enough of them to go around, but polygamous if there are fewer males than females. Then DNA testing revealed that many of the females do a little trysting on the sly--the young in a nest can have different daddies. Oh, those sneaky backdoor lovers!


Have you seen any red-winged blackbirds yet? (If so, where do you live?)

12 comments:

  1. Yes---passing through Georgia on their way north---seeing more  every day----at the feeder---in the trees---on the ground.  And like you said, only males so far. Haven't yet seen the huge flocks mixed with starlings and cowbirds and other similar dark birds that will descend on us later. I was thinking this was early to be seeing the redwings, but maybe these are the first males you mentioned. Maybe they've always been this early?  It's highly possible that I just never noticed them in previous years until the huge flocks come. 
    One question:  Is it my imagination that they travel in mixed breed flocks?
    I'm sometimes guilty of making broad generalizations after only a few observations. Having made many wrong guesses, I'm now trying to train myself to be more cautious about generalizations :-)

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  2. I saw males at the WDFW site in the Samish Flats of Skagit County early in the month during all that sunny weather.  I would hear them calling first and follow the calls to spot them in the cattails.  I had a pair and youngsters at the feeders on South Fidalgo during one summer, but haven't seen any here for three years.

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  3. I love that the less aggressive males keep their epaulets covered and move along.

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  4. I haven't seen these fellows.  But then I'm not a good bird noticer unless they're stealing my french fries.  Right now it's only me and my mooching hummingbird.

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  5. I will keep an eye out for some and let you know.  Since I have aged eyes, I will have to have my glasses on or be using binoculars!

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  6. I haven't seen any yet here in Whatcom County, but that doesn't mean much. I do, however, belong to a birding group and so far, nothing. I'll let you know when I see anything. 

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  7. They do travel in mixed flocks sometimes--in fact, I read about exactly the mix you mention--red-wings, starlings, and cowbirds. If you're seeing the first wave down south, surely they'll be hitting the PNW in a big way soon!

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  8. I saw some in January at Graham Oaks Nature Park in Wilsonville.  They were  hanging around the wetland with some starlings and a couple of house or purple finches.

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  9. Okay, clearly I've got to get to a wetland this weekend.

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  10. Yay--let me know when you see the first vultures too, please!

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  11. Yay! Caught a quick glimpse of my first red-winged this year after I dropped my daughter off at school. By a little settlement pond near the school.

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  12. For few days now we have the Red Wings and the Grackles in good numbers, a few Starlings, have not seen Cow Birds in the returning flocks yet, we only get a few of those even when spring has come.  Norwalk, CT

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