Red-wing Blackbird: The real harbinger of spring

SOUTH NEWFANE — Conk-a-reeeee!

I sit in my study, waiting out yet another late-winter snow storm. But I know that spring is here. The visual signs are missing, but the auditory signals are certain.


By the still-frozen riverbanks, ponds, and marshes, one of the earliest announcers of spring has been passing through since early March. Nine inches of black feathers, he stretches his neck skyward, opens his pointed bill, and belts out nasal, gurgling phrases that can only be called a “song” by another of this species.

And as he sings, his wings open in flightless display and red epaulets flash with sun-drenched brilliance even on the grayest of days.

The Red-wing Blackbird has returned.

* * *

Some Red-wing Blackbirds might winter as near as the Connecticut coast, but most gather much farther south in flocks that might number in the thousands. They wander through farmland, marshes, forest edges, and open fields, gleaning whatever food might be available.

But even before winter begins to loosen its grip, the males begin moving northward.

By the time the Red-wing Blackbirds begin reaching our neighborhoods, the flocks are starting to break up. Individual males begin looking for breeding territory. When the ice finally goes out of our ponds and marshes and plant life begins to reassert itself, the males will be there.

Perched on a reed, cattail, or shrubby willow, they will stake their claim as proprietors, intimidating their rivals with red-wings and vocal prowess.


By the time the drab females come along in another few weeks, the males will have settled their real-estate disputes. They'll be ready to urge one or more females to make a home.

The Red-wing Blackbird does not draw much attention from bird watchers except in March, when it is one of the earliest of the summer residents to return.

It is a successful and adaptable species. Except during our Vermont winters, there is no shortage. The Red-wing Blackbird is so common that it is easy to overlook its beauty - and its toughness. It is a scrappy bundle of feathers.

What the Red-wing Blackbird's song lacks in musical quality to our ears, it makes up in volume. Inevitably, it draws my attention.

If it draws your attention as well, you will be treated to the accompanying nuptial display. He holds the fore part of his wings well out from the shoulders. He spreads his shiny black tail. He bows his head low and displays his bright red wing patches.

It is an impressive display; one might even say thrilling. And if I have that kind of reaction, imagine what it can do for a female blackbird! Some males are so impressive that they attract two or three mates, all nesting in polygamous harmony near one another in the same marsh or bog.

Once the nuptials are concluded, the nondescript females seem to disappear into the confused tangle of the marsh while the male stands guard. He is vigilant - and fearless. A passing crow will draw his attack, as will a Northern Harrier, a bittern, or an Osprey.

Neighbors will join the fray, and the passing intruder will be soon mobbed by angry blackbirds.

On a misty, early morning, I once watched a Turkey Vulture laboriously take flight. It was all it could do to get airborne in the heavy atmosphere. The struggling vulture with his 5{1/2}-foot wingspan was soon hurried along by 9 inches of black fury. The attacking Red-wing Blackbird pecked and prodded and harassed the backside of the hapless and probably harmless scavenger.

Last summer, I wanted to find the nest of a Red-wing Blackbird. So I cautiously ventured through the marshy fringes of the beaver pond and into the soggy grasses.

I was just able to see a couple of nests - bulky open cups lashed to the reeds. But I quickly retreated. My slight intrusion into the marsh had sent the Red-wings flying into hysteria. They fluttered above, heaping maledictions on my head. They raced from reed to reed to shrub wailing at my intrusion into their domestic realm. Seldom have I felt less welcome anywhere.

* * *


I heard the Red-wing's gargle as I made a few quick birding stops in between my other errands. The sky grew grayer and heavier. The first few flakes of snow began falling.

I hurried home to wait out the winter storm. Even so, I know it is spring!

Conk-a-reeee! Good birding!

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