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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Red-winged blackbirds a welcome sign of 'spring'

Blane Klemek

I observed my first lonely red-winged blackbird, a vocalizing male bird perched high in the leafless canopy of an aspen tree near Assawa Lake, on the evening of April 11. It just so happened that I also observed my first robin of the spring, also a male. The latter bird was loudly chirping his tell-tale alarm call, which I couldn't help but wonder if its meaning wasn't directed at Old Man Winter's stubborn and unwelcome icy grip on the northland.

Indeed, not a single lake or wetland in all of Minnesota is ice-free. In fact, at this very writing, new snow blankets the landscape and yet another reminder that winter is not going away anytime soon. Yet despite winter's long goodbye, migrant birds are arriving one-by-one all across their northern breeding range—red-winged blackbirds, American robins, sandhill cranes, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, Canada geese, trumpeter swans, and many other species, too.

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 red-winged blackbirds, or "redwings" as some people call them.

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.

And it isn't 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 occasionally attack unsuspecting and intruding people, too.

Interestingly, male red-winged blackbirds 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 very good that some of the red-winged blackbird chicks—potentially up to 50 percent—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 but pleasant sounding and interesting looking "kon-ka-reeee" song and display of the territorial male red-winged blackbird, so incredibly bountiful in suitable Minnesota marshes, is a pleasing 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 autumn flocks can stretch for a mile or more.

Red-winged blackbirds, at home in the cattails of Minnesota's bountiful wetlands, lakes, and rivers, are a welcome sign of a spring yet-to-arrive here in the frozen Bold 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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