Sing a Song of Spring
Red-winged Blackbirds Awaken Spring
by: Virginia Andrews
Sing a song of spring. On the Gray Lady, spring can be gray indeed. But if you listen to the birds, it could come out as“Oh-ka-Lay”or“Konk-a-ree”or“tee-err,” or sometimes just “Check-check-check.”
While other songbirds come and go, Red-winged Blackbirds monitor the progress of the season from their tree-top perches. Gathered in flocks all winter, chattering amongst themselves, when weather and light give the right cues, male Red-wings peel off and settle down at wetland edges. When they start tuning up and begin to display their colorful epaulets around island ponds, we know that spring is about to wake up, even on the grayest of gray days.
Edward Howe Forbush, whose voluminous three-volume 1927 “Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States” is still a classic worth perusing, described the blackbird call and habitat thus: “Its very notes carry a suggestion of boggy ooze, and its chuck, like that of other blackbirds, is frog-like. It has a strong predilection for the oozy slough and the ‘floating island,’ where the treacherous soggy turf gives beneath the incautious footstep and precipitates the adventurer into the dark and watery depths below.”
One gets the feeling this was written from personal experience. Indeed, despite vast improvements in optics and other technology of observation, falling into swamps is still an activity enjoyed by ornithologists today.
Red-winged Blackbirds are endemic to North America, with a widespread range across the entire continental United States. In summer, many travel north and breed across most of southern Canada. In winter the northernmost birds migrate south, with some heading all the way to Central America. But where they can survive, Red-wings remain all winter. Sorted into individual families during the breeding season, they gather in large flocks on migration. There is safety in numbers. On the mainland they congregate in large roosts hundreds strong. But on Nantucket they huddle together in flocks of anywhere from a dozen to 70-some. When such a flock arrives at a yard with birdfeeders, they can quickly clean up the food supply. Although our sympathy seems to be in inverse proportion to their numbers, Red-wings deserve a second look.
Over-wintering Red-wings are a relatively new thing in our area. The first record for a Redwinged Blackbird in Massachusetts in January comes from 1890. It was even later for Nantucket. In the 1940s most left the island by October, and did not begin to return until late February. But lately, with milder winters and abundant food, they have usually been able to tough out the bouts of extreme weather.
Our winter flocks are made up almost exclusively of males. This gives them an advantage as they are on-site to pick the best breeding spots as soon as the weather window opens. Flocks of females travel further south and arrive later. Males claim their territories early and defend them with increasing vigor as the breeding season advances. Their bright scarlet epaulets and loud song are warning that “this site is taken.” It is also a sign of fitness, of vigor, good genes and the ability to provide food and chase off predators. Males may squabble for the best places in the marsh, fluffing up, extending their tails and fluttering their wings. In extreme cases they may actually fight and tangle in the air, falling all the way to the ground, or water, which does have a way of dampening the competition.
Breeding season starts in late May and runs until mid-July. Females anchor their nests, made of rushes, leaves and tiny rootlets, and lined with thin grass, in the cattails. Usually three or four eggs are laid, and take roughly two weeks of incubation to hatch. The fuzzy gray young take about two more weeks to fledge. One male often has a territory with more than one female, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the dad of all the nestlings. Although the female does all the incubation, males also feed the young.
Even before they fly, young Red-wings may leave the nest to crawl around and explore in the reeds below. Sometimes they do fall into those “dark and watery depths.” If not immediately snapped up by a passing turtle or other predator they swim back to safety. Adult birds bathe in shallows, but for preference do not swim.
In some places Red-wings are considered to be agricultural pests and are destroyed accordingly. It is true that under the right circumstances they eat cereal crops such as corn and rice and sometimes tender, emerging buds. Farmers trap, shoot, poison, harass or douse birds with nerve agents, pesticides or detergents that cause them to lose feather waterproofing and die of exposure. But then the crops and soil are also doused.
Sometimes, birds are overly blamed for crop losses. While apparently in some fields close to a large roost they can be exceptionally destructive, overall they are more a help than a hindrance. They eat large quantities of insects, bugs, spiders, grasshoppers and caterpillars, as well as seeds of cocklebur and
ragweed, along with other weeds. Although unwilling to eat spiny tent caterpillars, they do unwrap and eat those pupae, putting a stop to the next generation. In balance, researchers seem to think in most instances Red-wings’ services to the ecosystem outweigh the cost of their labors.
In the fall sometimes one of the other blackbird species, such as a Rusty or a Yellowheaded, will be found among the locals or with migrants. We used to get Rusty Blackbirds quite regularly, but they have been less and less common every year and were absent in the fall of 2016. Something has been happening to blackbirds. So although Red-wings are common now, Massachusetts Audubon has put them in its “whispering bird” category. This means that although still widespread in the state, their numbers have been steadily declining. We should enjoy them while we can. Is it spring yet? For now the answer is still “oh-ka-lea.” ///
Virginia Andrews writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror and is a regular feature writer for Nantucket Today.