Red-winged BlackbirdAgelaius phoeniceus

adult male
Greg Lasley/VIREO
adult female
Doug Wechsler/VIREO
immature male (1st summer)
Richard Crossley/VIREO
adult male, displaying
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult female, displaying
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult male
Johann Schumacher/VIREO

Description

Among our most familiar birds, Red-wings seem to sing their nasal songs in every marsh and wet field from coast to coast. They are notably bold, and several will often attack a larger bird, such as a hawk or crow, that flies over their nesting area. The red shoulder patches of the male, hidden under body feathers much of the time, are brilliantly displayed when he is singing. Outside the nesting season, Red-wings sometimes roost in huge concentrations.

Habitat

Breeds in marshes, brushy swamps, hayfields; forages also in cultivated land and along edges of water. Breeds most commonly in freshwater marsh, but also in wooded or brushy swamps, rank weedy fields, hayfields, upper edges of salt marsh. Often forages in other open habitats, such as fields and mudflats; outside the breeding season, flocks gather in farm fields, pastures, feedlots.

Feeding Diet

Mostly insects and seeds. Feeds on many insects, especially in summer, including beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and others; also spiders, millipedes, snails. Majority of adult's annual diet (roughly three-fourths) is seeds, including those of grasses, weeds, and waste grain. Also eats some berries and small fruits.

Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly while walking on ground; also sometimes up in shrubs and trees. Outside the breeding season, usually forages in flocks, often associated with other blackbirds and starlings.

Nesting

To defend his territory and attract a mate, male perches on high stalk with feathers fluffed out and tail partly spread, lifts leading edge of wing so that red shoulder patches are prominent, and sings. Also sings in slow, fluttering flight. One male often has more than one mate. Adults are very aggressive in nesting territory, attacking larger birds that approach, and loudly protesting human intruders. Nest: Placed in marsh growth such as cattails or bulrushes, in bushes or saplings close to water, or in dense grass in fields. Nest (built by female) is bulky open cup, lashed to standing vegetation, made of grass, reeds, leaves, rootlets, lined with fine grass. Eggs: 3-4, rarely 2-6. Pale blue-green, with markings of black, brown, purple concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by female only, 10-12 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings (but female does more). Young leave nest about 11-14 days after hatching.

Eggs

3-4, rarely 2-6. Pale blue-green, with markings of black, brown, purple concentrated at larger end. Incubation is by female only, 10-12 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings (but female does more). Young leave nest about 11-14 days after hatching.

Young

Both parents feed nestlings (but female does more). Young leave nest about 11-14 days after hatching.

Conservation

Abundant and widespread.

Range

Present throughout the year in many areas. In the north, migrants appear quite early in spring, with males arriving before females. Migrates in flocks.

Listen

male alarm whistles
songs #3
male burry alarm whistles & chack calls
male chack calls & burry whistles
typical chack calls #1
songs #2
songs #1
male two-parted alarm whistles
male alarm whistles and chack calls
male burry alarm whistles
metallic chack calls
female chack calls & chatter-songs
other calls
female chatter-songs & whimpers
songs and chack calls

Similar Species

adult, breeding

European Starling

Often regarded as a pest, the Starling wins our grudging admiration for its adaptability, toughness, and seeming intelligence. Brought to North America in 1890, it has spread to occupy most of the continent, and is now abundant in many areas. Sociable at most seasons, Starlings may gather in immense flocks in fall and winter. When the flocks break up for the breeding season, males reveal a skill for mimicry, interrupting their wheezing and sputtering songs with perfect imitations of other birds.

adult male

Tricolored Blackbird

While the Red-winged Blackbird is abundant over most of the continent, the very similar Tricolored Blackbird has a very small range in the Pacific states. It differs in its highly social nesting: in a dense cattail marsh, nests may be packed in close together, only a foot or two apart. Some colonies may have over 100,000 nests, although such large concentrations seem to be growing scarcer in recent years, as the birds shift to smaller (but hopefully more) colonies.

adult male

Brewer's Blackbird

This is the common blackbird of open country in the West, often seen walking on the ground with short forward jerks of its head. It adapts well to habitats altered by humans, and in places it may walk about on suburban sidewalks or scavenge for crumbs around beachfront restaurants. In winter, Brewer's Blackbirds gather in large flocks, often with other blackbirds, and may be seen foraging in farmland all across the western and southern states.

adult male

Boat-tailed Grackle

Until the 1970s, this big blackbird was considered to be the same species as the Great-tailed Grackle, but the two forms overlap on the coasts of Texas and Louisiana without interbreeding. The Boat-tail is a more aquatic creature, nesting in marshes, scavenging on beaches. Except in Florida, it is seldom found far away from tidewater. Boat-tailed Grackles nest in noisy colonies, the males displaying conspicuously with much wing-fluttering and harsh repeated calls.

adult male

Great-tailed Grackle

Wherever it occurs, this big blackbird is impossible to overlook -- especially the male, with his great oversized tail and incredible variety of callnotes. In the southwest, flocks of Great-tailed Grackles feed in open country during the day, but often come into towns at night, forming noisy roosting aggregations in the trees in city parks. During recent decades, this species has greatly expanded its range within our area, and it is still spreading north in some areas.

adult male Coastal (Purple)

Common Grackle

Throughout the east and midwest, this big blackbird is a very familiar species on suburban lawns, striding about with deliberate steps as it searches for insects. Common Grackles often nest in small colonies, and several males may perch in adjacent treetops to sing their creaking, grating songs. Big flocks are often seen flying overhead in the evening, heading for major communal roosts, especially from late summer through winter.

adult male

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The male Yellow-headed Blackbird is impressive to see, but not to hear: it may have the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping. Yellow-heads nest in noisy colonies in big cattail marshes of the west and midwest; when not nesting, they gather in flocks in open fields, often with other blackbirds. At some favored points in the southwest in winter, they may be seen in flocks of thousands.

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