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Singer of wetlands sure sign of spring

Where there are wetlands and cattails, there will be red-winged blackbirds. You might recall my mention of one such redwing on March 7. I spotted the bird singing from the top of an oak tree on one of the coldest mornings of the long winter. The thermometer registered 26 below zero.

The ice on Assawa Lake just went out April 23, nearly 50 days after the arrival and sighting of that cold and lonely looking red-winged blackbird. But since his premature appearance, many others of his kind have filtered back to the North Country. And while I haven't observed a female redwing yet, they will soon arrive and join the very vocal males.

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 amongst cattail stands still lodged in ice, is by design. Finding and establishing breeding territories is high on the priority list for male redwings. 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.

In the "Sibley Guide to Birds," it states, "All icterids have rather slender, pointed bills..." Nevertheless, as its author also states, "...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 respective territories. So aggressive, it is common to observe them chasing one another continuously throughout the spring breeding season. I have often observed singing and displaying males suddenly take flight in pursuit of trespassers. Recently, I watched two male redwings tumble through the air and disappear into a dense stand of cattails. The combatants fought viciously with one another for more than half a minute until, at last, the intruder made haste while the victor resumed his song from his territorial stage.

And it's not only other male redwings that suffer the brunt of abuse either. 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 also occasionally attack unsuspecting people.

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 that was understood by all species of birds. In 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 real good that some of the red-winged blackbird chicks -- potentially up to 50-percent of them -- are not even of his own 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 dad 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 for a mile or more.

And whereas orioles sing beautifully from treetops and builds 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 parental responsibility, 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, the red-winged blackbird, at home in the cattails, is a welcome sign of spring in the frozen North as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at