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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The red-winged blackbird

As I write this, Spring has busted loose in the Panhandle. The swallows have returned, I have already seen my first turkey vulture of the year, and the music of songbirds greet every dawn. But one bird that proves to all doubters that Spring has finally sprung is one of the most common, and noisy, species of birds in our area: the red-winged blackbird. The distinctive and delightful “gurgling trill kon-ka-reeee” (per the Sibley Guide to Birds) mating call of the male red-wing blackbird is once again wafting through the damp spring air. 

And damp is the key word. The red-wing blackbird loves swampy areas filled with cattails. This is their preferred mating habitat and what helps to make the red-wing such an interesting and unusual bird. One of my mantras in this monthly column is that even the most common birds in our area are unique and distinctive in so many ways. Commonness in locality doesn’t mean commonness in attributes. And the red-wing is the poster child for this dichotomy. We might see them everywhere, but they have uncommon characteristics. But before we explore this, let’s look for field marks to help identify these birds.

The red-wing derives its common name from the male’s colors. The female is neither black nor sports any red. The male is the most distinctive of the pair. He is jet-black in color, from the tip of his beak to the tip of his tail. Even his eyes are black. But you might not notice this, because what stands out so spectacularly are those bright, bright red epaulets he sports on his shoulders.  These red flarings are quite distinctive, especially when the male is posing for the ladies. During the breeding season he can fluff them up and he becomes quite the sight. Also note how the red is often matched with a parallel yellow stripe below. There is no other bird with this coloration, especially among the cattails. Paired with the mating call described above, you then can make a definitive identification. And once you do, you’ll see and hear them everywhere.

What about the female? She is camouflaged in brown, with a streaky breast. In my estimation she looks like an oversized sparrow, especially with the brown cap and the white eye line. If she wasn’t hanging with the boys in the ‘tails, you’d think she was a different, unrelated specie. But she is the center of attention in the cattail swamps. And this is what makes the red-wing such an interesting creature: breeding habits.

When we think of songbirds breeding, many of us picture a pair of robins, snug in their nest, raising their brood. Not red-wings. The males are Casanovas. Instead of pairing with one female, the male wants all of the females, as many as he can get. And unlike a bull elk or Turkish emir, he is not trying to form a harem, he just wants to love ‘em and leave ‘em. Male red-wings will fight to establish the best and biggest territory in order to attract the greatest number of potential mates. The most aggressive males get the best areas, the losers get the fringes. Likewise, the females desire the areas best for raising a brood of chicks—they are indifferent to the males that control it. Therefore, the male that dominates the choicest habitat might have a dozen mates, while those on the outskirts might only have one, if any. Survival of the fittest, or the most lecherous, depending on your perspective.

Males can be very aggressive and spend a lot of energy defending their territories from encouraging males. But you don’t need to be another red-wing to feel the male bird’s wrath. They will also attack other birds, dogs, and people—whatever. Let’s just call them surly.

So where can you find red-wings blackbirds? Just about anywhere, but sometimes their preferred habitat is not readily accessible to us non-feathered bipeds. A great place to see red-wings in situ is behind Sandpoint Middle School. There is a very accessible swampy area with a path, near Pine Street Field. Just park in the north parking lot next to the middle school and then move toward the trees. Just follow your ears. Happy birding!


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, red-winged blackbird, blackbird, songbird

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