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Blane Klemek: Red-winged blackbirds a sign of spring, too

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Where there are wetlands and cattails, there will be red-winged blackbirds. Since 2008, my first red-winged blackbird observation has generally occurred in early to mid-March.

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Not this year! In fact, I have yet to see a single singing male redwing from any of the dry and brittle stands of last year’s cattails sticking resolutely from a still iced-over Lake Assawa that I live beside.

I did, however, observe a few lonely looking redwings and a handful of grackles in the Detroit Lakes area during the first week of April. But since, Old Man Winter seemed to have chased them away, and it wasn’t until this past week of April that I began seeing larger flocks of red-winged blackbirds searching for suitable locations to sing and perch.

As is the case with many birds, male red-winged blackbirds typically arrive at the northern breeding grounds well in advance of the females. The male-only convergence among cattail stands still lodged in ice, is by design. Finding and establishing breeding territories is high on the priority list. Getting there first is important and lends credence to the old adage “The early bird catches the worm” (in this case, prime breeding territory and females).

Red-winged blackbirds belong to a sizable group of birds collectively called icterids. Among them include meadowlarks, bobolinks, cowbirds, grackles, orioles and five species of blackbirds — yellow-headed, tri-colored, red-winged, Brewer’s and rusty blackbirds. In all, there are 23 species of icterids.

The “Sibley Guide to Birds” states “All icterids have rather slender, pointed bills…” Nevertheless, as the author also says, “…their structure is difficult to generalize.” The name “icterid” is evidently derived from Greek and Latin words meaning “jaundiced” (yellow). Yellow feathers are common in many icterids, but not all.

The ubiquitous red-winged blackbird is prevalent throughout all of North America’s wetlands and marshes. Breeding males sport orange-red shoulder patches that can be displayed, or hidden, at will. Displaying males reveal their shoulder patches as a sign of supremacy. Younger, subordinate males will avoid displaying in the presence of older males. Female red-winged blackbirds look like entirely different species; their brownish striped plumage seems more sparrow-like than the blackbird they are.

Male redwings are fierce protectors of their territories. So aggressive, it is common to observe them chasing one another continuously through the spring breeding season. I have often observed singing and displaying males suddenly take flight in pursuit of trespassers.

I’ve watched, for example, pairs of male redwings tumble through the air and disappear into dense stand of cattails, where the combatants engage in vicious tussles until the intruder makes haste while the victor resumes his song from his territorial stage.

And it isn’t only other male redwings that suffer the brunt of abuse. Other species of birds — especially birds-of-prey or birds noted for egg or chick stealing such as crows, gulls, and herons — are regularly chased away or dive-bombed by testosterone-engorged male redwings and nest-defending females. Redwings will occasionally attack unsuspecting people, too.  

I’ve seen an entire marsh, replete with singing and displaying male red-winged blackbirds, suddenly shush at the sight of a hawk flying low overhead. In these instances, the whole population of redwings entered into a state of high alert and began a cacophony of alarm calls understood by all species of birds. On several occasions, I watched as groups of fearless flying redwings attacked fleeing raptors.

Interestingly, male redwings are notorious polygynists. A single male can occupy a territory with as many as a dozen or more females nesting within his domain. But, as genetic research has concluded, not all of the females nesting in his territory are necessarily laying his eggs or raising his offspring.

Chances are good some of the red-winged blackbird chicks — potentially up to 50 percent — are not of his genetic material. Seems that when an occupying male is busy chasing another male out of his territory, an opportunistic nearby neighbor oftentimes sneaks in and engages in what is termed by ornithologists as “extra-pair copulations.” No matter, the territorial male fiercely defends his resident females and offspring from all interlopers regardless of who the real father is.

The curious “kon-ka-reeee” song and display of the territorial male red-winged blackbird, so incredibly bountiful in suitable Minnesota marshes, is a pleasant sound and sight to be sure.

These birds, sometimes numbering in the millions as they fly south during the annual autumn migration, is equally as spellbinding. Endless flocks can stretch a mile or more.

And whereas orioles sing beautifully from treetops and build strange bulbous nests that hang from branches, and cowbirds have taken the practice of brood parasitism to the extraordinary level of precluding them from any parenting, and the unique bobolink, which is thought to possess features found in several other species of birds unrelated to icterids, the family seems, at best, a confounding avian assortment lumped together by an affinity of color and bill shape.

Indeed, red-winged blackbirds, at home in the cattails of Minnesota’s bountiful wetlands, lakes, and rivers, are a welcome sign of spring in the frozen North as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.   

— Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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