Red-winged blackbird hard to miss

Published 9:33 am Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Almost everyone knows the red-winged blackbird. They are bold, brassy and very easy to see. They are also brightly-colored and noisy. All in all, you have a bird that is hard to miss.
When the birds arrive in marshes and wet thickets in the early spring, the males are fascinating to watch as they stake out and defend their selected territories.
The best way to watch the elaborate and flamboyant display of the newly arrived males is to visit the nesting area early in the morning or late in the day. After about half an hour of observation you should be able to see many aspects of blackbird behavior, including “songspread,” bill-tilt and song flight. This is especially marked along the demarcation line between adjacent blackbird territories.
For about two or three weeks, before the females arrive, the male’s songspread display is given. Often accompanied by the familiar “Conk-aree” song, the male gives this display from a prominent perch as he arches his body forward and spreads his wings to show off his brightly-colored epaulets. This behavior is directed at other male birds in the vicinity. When display is at its most intense, the red and yellow epaulets may even vibrate with the bird’s excitement.
When males share a common border, as they do down at many of our local wetlands (even down at the FENCE pond), males will bill-tilt, an activity that also exposes the epaulets, but no songs or calls are given. The birds remain fairly motionless with their bills pointing skyward.
The song flight is the third easily seen display of the male red-winged blackbird. This is done as the bird enters or leaves its territory. This is a slow, stalling flight, again with the epaulets flared, and may be accompanied by the typical song.
Since the redwing territories are usually small and adjacent, there is often a great deal of jockeying for suitable sites. By watching this behavior for an hour or so, you may be able to see the changeover and watch different males claiming different areas of the marsh.
Everyone knows what the male red-winged blackbird looks like, but the female is quite different. She is smaller with an overall sooty-gray appearance and fine streaks, more like a large dark sparrow.
When these drabber plumaged females appear on the scene, the activity level rises greatly. And as the birds are polygamous, the females form sub-territories within each male’s territory. Again, defense of theses areas may involve chases and the three previously mentioned behavior patterns.
Whatever your original reaction to the presence of red-winged blackbirds, a closer look at these familiar birds will offer a fascinating insight into their breeding behavior.
Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours He and his partner, Chris, also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at

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