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Red-winged Blackbird

(Agelaius phoeniceus)
Indianapolis, Indiana

General Information

The Red-winged Blackbird is arguably one of the most well known and widely distributed birds in North America. Population estimates are that nearly 200 million individuals occur in a range extending from SE Alaska and Canada across the lower 48 states and well into Central America. It is abundant year round in most of its range, but northern populations withdraw to the south by November. Its preferred habitat is a cattail marsh, but they can be found nearly anywhere in moist open shrubby habitat.

Food consists mostly of vegetable matter such as weed seeds, waste grains and berries. Animal foods consist of caterpillars, cankerworms, grubs, grasshoppers, gypsy and other moths, beetles, and many other insect pests.

When not nesting, these blackbirds congregate in immense mixed flocks with cowbirds and grackles. Mixed flocks may contain millions of individuals.

Other species of blackbirds in this genus that occur in the Americas include the Yellow-winged Blackbird (A. thilius), Chestnut-capped Blackbird (A. ruficapillus), Unicolored Blackbird (A. cyanopus), Tri-colored Blackbird (A. tricolor), and the Tawny-shouldered Blackbird (A. humeralis).

The adult male is jet black with a bright red shoulder patch or “epaulet” bordered below by a yellow stripe. When not territorial, the black feathers on the shoulder are used to cover most of the red patch.

Red-winged Blackbird Male
Figure 1 - Red-winged Blackbird Male

 

Red-winged Blackbird Male
Figure 2 - Red-winged Blackbird male

 

In early spring, males arrive on the breeding grounds first and establish a territory a few days or so prior to the arrival of the females.

The female looks quite different from the male, and many an unwary birder may initially think they are looking at another species. The female is well streaked with a pronounced whitish stripe above the eye and a light yellow wash to the throat.

 

Red-winged Blackbird Female
Figure 3 - Red-winged Blackbird Female

Red-winged Blackbird Nest Habitat
Figure 4 - Red-winged Blackbird Nest Habitat

 

Red-winged Blackbirds like to breed in stands of cattails. Even a small patch bordering a pond as in this office park provides ideal habitat to raise a brood.

Looking close, a well constructed nest can be found woven into the cattail leaves. This one was located about 4 feet above the water line.

Red-winged Blackbird nest
Figure 5 - Red-winged Blackbird nest

 

Hungry Mouths in the nest
Figure 6 - Hungry Mouths in the nest

 

Chicks are born naked and blind, and hunker down to remain inconspicuous to predators.

When the female arrives with food, the chicks stretch their necks high and open their mouths wide begging to be fed.

 

Red-winged Blackbird nestlings
Figure 7 - Red-winged Blackbird nestlings

Red-winged Blackbird nestlings
Figure 8 - Red-winged Blackbird nestlings

 

This close-up shows the still blind and mostly naked chicks begging for food.

Breeding

The female Red-winged Blackbird builds a tightly woven cup nest of long leaves around upright vegetation located in a swamp, marsh, or wet meadow over or near water. The nest, completed in 3 to 6 days, is a deep cup of woven long leaves tightly bound to upright vegetation and lined with fine grasses.

From 3 to 5 pale blue eggs scrawled with darker markings are incubated by the female and hatch in 10-12 days. Chicks leave the nest in another 10 days or so before they can fly, and climb around in the vegetation. If they fall into the water they can swim, but are vulnerable and sometimes taken by predators such as bullfrogs, water snakes, or snapping turtles.

The male is polygamous, and will mate with several females in his territory. Up to two broods can be fledged by a female in a breeding season.

These birds have been the subject of much research, and many insights into breeding behavior have been gleaned from this species. One finding is that young females fledge more daughters than sons, but older females fledge more sons than daughters. Middle aged birds fledge about the same numbers of females and males.

The reasons for these sex ratio differences in broods are not clear, but this is undoubtedly related to the polygamous breeding strategy that requires more females than males in the population. Younger females are more likely to survive one or more breeding seasons, and would contribute to the overall population by fledging females in their early breeding efforts. Older females, on the other hand, would contribute more to the overall population sex ratios by fledging males.

Conservation Status and Economic Importance

Banding studies show that populations are short distance migrants that may return to the same colony year after year. Individual birds can live more than 14 years in the wild.

Populations are doing well, and these birds provide a service to mankind by consuming vast numbers of insect pests.

Since these birds consume vast numbers of insect pests, their presence is welcome. Their willingness to breed even in small wetland habitats argues for protecting even the smallest seales and other wetland habitats.

If you should recover a banded Red-winged Blackbird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Further Reading

Alderfer, J. Ed. 2006. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC. 664 Pp.

Baicich, P. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, 2nd Edition. Academic Press, NY. 347 Pp.

De La Pena, R. and M. Rumboll. 1998. Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 304 Pp.

Gill, F. 1995. Ornithology. 2nd Edition. W. H. Freeman & Co., New York, NY. 766 Pp.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books, NY. 1,109 Pp.

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