Wild Things: Red-winged Blackbirds

Montana's Red-winged Blackbirds

Red-winged Blackbird brings sounds of spring in Montana

By Ryan L. Rauscher

MONTANA LIVING — The recent weather has brought much-needed moisture and optimism for people and wildlife.

montana living redwinged blackbird ryan rauscher montana department of fish wildlife and parks

One critter seemed particularly optimistic this spring. The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), is a welcome sign of spring as they perch on old cattail stalks in roadside ditches and wetlands. The male arrives from its wintering grounds in the south in April with the female following a few weeks later. Perhaps the most abundant bird in Montana, the male redwing is known to anyone who notices birds at all.

He is one of the most conspicuous and self-revealing birds during the breeding season. He quickly flies up from the marshes to greet intruders with a loud "konk-a-reee." He is the only all-black bird with bright red shoulders. In fact, the species name is Greek and refers to the male's red shoulder patch or epaulet. However, the female is less easily recognized.

The female is dark brown above, heavily streaked below and sometimes has a red tinge on the wing coverts or a pinkish wash on the chin and throat. She is quite inconspicuous during the breeding season. When the redwings return in spring, the marshes and sloughs are dreary and desolate compared to the summer before.

The males return early to claim the best territories. When the moisture and warm weather return, the wetlands come to life once more. Over the lush new growth, the males proclaim ownership of his particular circular area of cattails, defending it vigorously from all intruders. When the female arrives, she selects the male with the best territory for nesting and feeding.

A polygamous species, blackbird males may have several females nesting within his territory. It's not uncommon for one male to mate with six females. After selecting the male with the best territory, the female builds a cup-like nest of woven grasses at or near the water's edge. In wetlands, the nest is woven into large vegetation such as cattails or reeds.

Nests are also built in bushes or in small trees near the water. The female will lay three or four bluish-green eggs with black splotches. She alone incubates the eggs while the male is busy defending his territory. The eggs hatch in about 10 to 12 days. The female feeds the nestlings insects and insect larvae. The male may help feed the nestlings when not defending his territory.

The nestlings grow quickly and fledge in approximately 14 days. The adults can't swim, but the young can at five or six days old. This is important as they sometimes fall from the nest into the water. The female will continue to feed the fledglings for about two weeks until they become independent. In a good year, she will often raise two broods. Red-winged blackbirds are not finicky eaters. The majority of their diet is insects with a lesser portion of seeds.

The red-winged blackbird is an active feeder. They glean insects and seeds from the ground and plants and often can be see hawking insects in the air. They also use a feeding technique known as gaping. The closed bill is pushed into the soil and then opened. This makes a hole in the soil, exposing insects and seeds underground. Food can be obtained from a wide variety of otherwise inaccessible places by gaping.

A strong flier, redwings can travel great distances between roosting and foraging areas each day. In fall, large flocks will start to gather in the wetlands and fields and begin the journey south to the wintering grounds in the southern United States and Costa Rica. Other migrating species often join them, flying south in loosely arranged flock. The long, sinuous low-flying flocks will often number in the thousands.

— Ryan L. Rauscher is a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Great Falls.

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