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Feisty Red-winged Blackbirds Make Presence Known

Red-winged blackbirds are one of our most familiar and recognizable birds. We recognize them both because of their appearance and because of their behavior. At the right time of year, these birds will chase away anything that dares to get too close, and that includes humans. 


A male red-winged blackbird calling while perched on a cattail.
A male red-winged blackbird. (Photo via Shutterstock)

It's the male red-winged blackbirds that tend to get our attention with their aggressive behavior. Females can be aggressive too, but usually only to other females. 


Many birds can be aggressive to others from their species when they are defending their territory or wooing a mate. However, male red-winged blackbirds have a reputation for attacking just about anything that dares to get too close to their nest area, including much larger birds, horses and humans. 


Defending their territory can be a time-consuming process. It can account for as much as 25% of the daylight hours during breeding season. 


It's also the male red-winged blackbirds that have the striking appearance we are familiar with. They are mostly a glossy black except for their namesake red shoulder patches. Those bright patches also feature a stripe of yellow under the red. 


A female red-winged blackbird perched on a dried plant stem.
A female red-winged blackbird. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

As is common among songbirds, female red-winged blackbirds are much less flashy in appearance. They are streaky brown in color, with a lighter shade of brown on their breast.

These birds are most often seen near wetlands like marshes, but they also sometimes nest near meadows and fields. Look for the males perched atop cattails and tall grasses as they sing their familiar song. 


Male red-winged blackbirds are among the earliest birds to arrive back on their breeding grounds each year. Some arrive as early as January. 


In February, many people listen for the familiar sound of their "conk-la-ree" call as a reminder that spring is on its way. The female blackbirds will follow weeks later, usually arriving in March and April in time for breeding and nesting season.


Red-winged blackbirds nest in the marshes and fields where they are often seen. They build their nests just above ground level in thick vegetation like cattails and sedges. The height of their nests leaves them vulnerable to predators, but the female birds' drab color provides some camouflage. Their aggressive and territorial behavior is also useful when it comes to protecting their nests. 


 

Words to know

Clutch: A group of eggs fertilized at the same time.

Fledge: To develop wing feathers large enough for flight.

Monogamous: Having only one mate at a time.

 

Red-winged blackbirds are not monogamous. Males usually breed with at least five but as many as 15 females in their territory. Females can also mate with more than one male in a territory. 


The female blackbirds construct their nests from stringy plant fibers. They then create a mud cup that is lined with dried grass. Females will lay one, two or possibly three clutches of eggs each year. They construct a new nest each time. 


Each clutch will have between two and four eggs that are a pale bluish-green or grayish-brown in color. They will hatch after 11 to 13 days of incubation. The newly hatched birds are fed by both parents, but the mothers do more of the work to care for the hatchlings. The young birds fledge the nest about two weeks after hatching.


These birds mostly eat insects, but they also eat seeds and grain. They don't often visit bird feeders, but they may pay your yard a visit during their migrations to eat seed or grain on the ground.


Red-winged blackbirds are the most common and widespread blackbird species in the United States and Canada, but there are about 20 subspecies that look similar. Other blackbirds we see in Illinois include rusty blackbirds and Brewer's blackbirds. Familiar birds like common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds also belong to the blackbird family of birds. 


Although red-winged blackbirds are a familiar sight and sound in Illinois, their population has been declining. Between 1966 and 2019, their population fell by about 0.72% per year, resulting in a total decline of about 28%.

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