The Wonderful World Of Red-Winged Blackbirds:Tiny Heralds Of Spring

“In spring more mortal singers than belong

To anyone place cover us with song.

Thrush, bluebird, blackbird, sparrow, and robin throng;”

Robert Frost, “Our Singing Strength”

Whoosh! Whap! As I strode up the steps toward the upper plaza at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial out on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, I felt something smack resoundingly against my park ranger flat hat. Almost immediately, Wham! It happened again. Next time, I recognized that the sound of being smacked in the head was accompanied by a whir of wings. Early each spring, flocks of red-winged blackbirds migrate from their winter sanctuaries in the South to the stand of Australian pines that surround Perry Monument in order to mate, lay their eggs, and guard their hatchlings until they are ready to set out on their own. Apparently, they take offense when any human passes too close to their nesting sites. Why they seemed to take a particular dislike to our ranger flat hats remains a mystery.

Each season the female redwings select nesting sites, usually somewhere close to the ground. Both sexes defend the nests, even attacking larger species that they regard as threats, like park rangers. Each nest typically shelters two to four eggs, and there may be one or two broods per year.

It did not seem to me, at the time, that the angry birds felt threatened by the thousands of park visitors who pass nearby during the summer months, but I have heard tales from rangers more experienced than myself. Gerry Altoff, our chief ranger, now long retired, has shared with me an incident one summer when a blackbird dive-bombed a woman and caused her to fall off her bicycle.

In my experience, they only directed their ire at rangers. At day’s end, many of us often speculated about what threatening creature in the natural world resembled our hats. Some gigantic species of hawk or owl that remains unrecognized by ornithologists and bird watchers? It bedevils me yet, a mystery not to be solved. I have searched the skies in vain for a huge bird of prey resembling a ranger’s flat hat.

Otherwise, I list the red-winged blackbird as one of my favorite bird species. Whenever I hear their musical trilling, it takes me back to my boyhood when redwings would congregate in my grandpa’s pasture to serenade from the tops of fence posts and cattails.

Back in mid-February, as I set out upon my evening walk around the neighborhood, I heard a familiar “kon-ka-reeeee,” the mating call of a male red-winged blackbird, emanating from the marsh across from our home. It seemed too early for the redwings to have returned this far north, but the musical trill was unmistakable, a harbinger of spring. The next day, there were two songsters, and within a few days, the wetlands resonated with their sonorous calls. As always, I was delighted to have them back, about the same time that returning robins added their chirps to the symphony that included contributions by the melodious songs of cardinals, the angry cussing of blue jays, and the occasional skree of a Cooper’s hawk soaring far overhead.

It is no accident that they return to this place each year, an area covered with wetlands, swamps and estuaries meandering inland from Lake Erie. Redwings seem to prefer such habitats. They search for food in open fields but return to their marshy habitats once filled. They often appear in large flocks, males in one group and females in another, and graze alongside close avian relatives like grackles. They typically feed on insects in the summer and seeds, including farmers’ wheat and corn, during the cold months. Redwings also consider sunflowers, ragweed and cocklebur delicacies.

Redwings are the most widespread blackbirds across North America. Even at that, however, between 1966 and 2019 there has been a decline in their numbers of approximately 0.72% annually. Experts suspect an overall 28% decline in their numbers. There may be a number of factors involved, as with the declining numbers of many other species of birds, including such pesticides as neonics and the proliferation of feral cats. Climate change may also be affecting their migration and breeding patterns.

While female redwings possess brown, unprepossessing feathers, the males exhibit bright orange and yellow shoulder patches. The call of the female is a harsh sort of rattle, but the males add to the spring and summertime music of pastures and marshes with a distinctive “kon-ka-reeeee.” The redwing alarm call is a panicked “teeeew.” The male song is a mating call, perhaps not unlike the offerings of medieval troubadours, launched into the air in hopes of attracting a female.

As autumn approaches, northern redwings migrate to Mexico and to sites in the southern U.S. Southern redwings feel no need to migrate. A redwing may migrate 600-800 miles southward from their summer homes in the Midwest to states like Alabama, Mississippi and even Louisiana. There always seem to be a few who linger behind in Midwestern sites like Ohio, pecking about morosely for bits and pieces to sustain themselves until spring arrives.

Not everyone is enamored of my avian friends. They sometimes congregate, roost and feed in flocks of thousands, even millions, much to the consternation of nearby human populations. There have been towns inundated my migrating redwings. A landscape polluted by a sea of bird droppings would indeed be abominable. Elaborate schemes have been attempted in order to drive the pesky birds away, including fireworks, among other things, with various degrees of success.

Be that as it may, I continue to take joy in the brightly colored birds’ melodious songs, heralds of the advent of spring.

(Sibley’s Field Guide to North American Birds is my source for the approximations of Red-winged blackbird calls.)

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Lorin Swinehart
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