‘Conk-la-ree’, ahhh, the sound I listen for at this time of year. A true sign that spring is on the way is hearing the song of the Red-winged Blackbird. They are one of the first songbirds to migrate from their winter destinations in the Southern US back to Canada. Male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive back to their breeding grounds about three weeks before the females. During migration they are often seen in large flocks with Grackles and Cowbirds.
Male Red-winged Blackbirds are easy to identify. They are all black except for their red shoulder patches lined with a yellow border. Another name for the shoulder patch is Epaulet, meaning an ornamental shoulder piece. Red-winged Blackbirds are stocky medium-sized blackbirds with a slim bill and medium-length tail. You will see the males perched high on tree tops and lamp posts enthusiastically singing their conk-la-ree song while puffing out their red shoulder feathers for show. Female Red-winged Blackbirds are slightly smaller than the male and resemble a large sparrow. They are dark brown with a heavily streaked breast, sometimes with a tinge of pink, and white eyebrow. Females spend much of their time on the ground foraging for nesting materials and food. Red-winged Blackbirds are able to walk, run and hop.
Red-winged Blackbirds do not mate for life. Some males have been known to have as many as 15 female partners in a breeding season. The females have to nest close together when this happens to stay within the males’ territory. Red-winged Blackbirds prefer to build their nests close to the ground in marshy areas. The female is in charge of building the nest. She weaves twine-like plant materials around upright stems. Wet leaves and decayed wood will be added with mud to hold the fine grasses which line the cup-shaped nest. Three or four eggs are laid and incubated by the female for 11-12 days. The oval eggs are pale blueish-green with spots of brown, purple or black on the larger end. The young leave the nest 11-14 days after hatching. The parents will have one or two broods per season, building a new nest for each clutch. Red-winged Blackbirds are very defensive of their territory and are known to swoop at people who get too close to their nest. The longest living Red-winged Blackbird on record was 15 years old.
Red-winged Blackbirds eat insects, worms, frogs and snails during the spring and summer nesting season. The rest of the year they feed mostly on grains and seeds from plants and weeds. They are easily attracted to your bird feeders by offering sunflower seeds, peanut halves and millet. Their bills are slim enough to enable them to feed from a nyjer or mesh feeder, but will also go to hopper and cylinder feeders.
Here’s an interesting fact about Red-winged blackbirds: if the nest is built by a stream and a nestling falls from the nest, it will be able to swim short distances. Adults cannot swim. If you live in the Durham Region you will be able to observe the habits of this bird at Lynde Shores Conservation Area. The habitat there is very favourable for nesting with its marsh, river, cattails and rushes.
Author – Jane Paradis