Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Red-Winged Blackbird

Blackbirds are often overlooked as common or disregarded as too widespread to be of real interest, but the red-winged blackbird is certainly interesting! If you learn more about this amazing bird, you’re sure to be on the lookout for it to see all its great qualities.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird – Photo by André Chivinski

Red-Winged Blackbird Fun Facts
  • While blackbirds are often compared with crows and ravens, they are actually different bird families. The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is an icterid, a member of the family Icteridae, and is more closely related to orioles and meadowlarks than crows.
  • There are more than 25 recognized subspecies of red-winged blackbird, more than a dozen of which occur throughout the United States. Subtle differences in calls, plumage color, sizes, preferred habitats, and other traits distinguish them.
  • The colored patch on these birds’ wings can vary greatly with posture, attitude, and behavior. When aggressive or displaying, males will puff up and hunch their shoulders to make these patches larger and more prominent.
  • While the red on the red-winged blackbird’s shoulder is a key field mark and its namesake feature, it is only populations in central California that show only red on the shoulders. Elsewhere, the lower border of the colored patch is a pale yellow.
  • These are very aggressive birds, and males will attack all types of intruders into their territory, including humans, horses, dogs, snakes, and raptors. They will dive bomb invaders, chase them, and even beat them with their wings.
  • Red-winged blackbirds are social all year long, but it is in winter when their sociability really increases and roosting and feeding flocks can have millions of birds. During the breeding season, flocks are smaller and more dispersed.
  • With such large flocks, it’s no surprise there are interesting flock names for red-winged blackbirds. Cloud, cluster, and merl are all words used to describe large flocks of blackbirds.
  • Female red-winged blackbirds look vastly different than males, and are responsible for many confusing bird identifications because they closely resemble different grassland sparrows. Note the bird’s size, facial markings, and bill shape for proper identification.
  • These birds are anything but loyal, and a male red-winged blackbird may have as many as 10-15 mates at the same time during the breeding season. Females also mate with different males, and one brood of eggs may have chicks from several different pairings.
  • During spring migration, male red-winged blackbirds typically travel first, securing breeding grounds and defending their territories from competitors. Females will arrive 2-3 weeks after males.
  • Vagrant red-winged blackbirds have been recorded in Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland, as well as much further north – into the Arctic – in North America than they’d be expected.
Adding the Red-Winged Blackbird to Your Life List

While most blackbirds are thought of as rural birds only to be seen in agricultural areas, red-winged blackbirds are more cosmopolitan than most and will visit backyard feeders, even in suburban areas. Mixed seeds and cracked corn are some of their favorite feeder treats, and using broad hopper feeders, open trays, platforms, or ground feeders can encourage these birds to visit. In the field, look for these birds and their noisy behaviors in damp, brushy fields, alongside swamps and marshes, or near agricultural fields and rural roadside ditches, where they will often perch on cattails, wires, or fences. They are one of the most common birds to be found in North America, so if you’re in the right habitat, it should be easy to spot a red-winged blackbird.

Learn More About the Red-Winged Blackbird

A lot of great resources have additional information about red-winged blackbirds, including…

Red-Winged Blackbird - Female

Red-Winged Blackbird – Female – Photo by Russ

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