Friday, June 12, 2009

At the pond... Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged BlackbirdAdult male Red-winged Blackbird, displaying, with red shoulder patch obvious, Tualatin River NWR, Sherwood, Oregon on 9 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The musical konk-a-REE-a song of the Red-winged Blackbird is a familiar summer sound in marshes and wetlands throughout North and Middle America. In winter these birds move south out of most of Alaska and Canada, though they remain in milder coastal British Columbia and SE Alaska.

The males are glossy black with reddish-orange shoulder patches, edged with yellow. During mating or territorial displays, the male prominently shows off his red wing patches (photo above). At other times, though, the black scapular feathers of the upper shoulders conceal the red patch and just the yellow border shows (photo below).

Red-winged BlackbirdAdult male Red-winged Blackbird, singing, with red shoulder patch mostly concealed, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 3 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Females, on the other hand, are very streaky, and lack the red shoulder patches. They resemble sparrows, but have a longer, more pointed bill and full tail--the same silhouette as the male Red-winged Blackbird. Immature males, through their first year are similar to the females, but do show varying amounts of red on the wing. These plumages are the source of many questions we receive about bird identification.

Red-winged BlackbirdFemale or immature Red-winged Blackbird, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 7 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


In fall and winter Red-winged Blackbirds form large flocks with other blackbirds, starlings, and cowbirds. While they often feed in fields and cattle feedlots, many also visit backyard bird feeders for sunflower and other seeds and suet. They prefer to feed on the ground or on a tray feeder.

In the Pacific Northwest, and especially in California, there are two other similar birds. Actually, there is a form of Red-winged Blackbird in the Central Valley of California that lacks the yellow edges to the red wing patch. This form of Red-winged Blackbird (not actually a different species) is called the "bicolored blackbird." A separate species, the Tricolored Blackbird is found in California, with scattered colonies in SW and Central Oregon and, in very recent years, barely into southeastern Washington. The Tricolored Blackbird has a deeper blood-red shoulder patch bordered with white. The voice lacks any musical overtones, but otherwise matches the pattern of Red-winged Blackbird. Females are similar, but the female Tricolored Blackbird is quite dark on the lower belly, while the Red-winged Blackbird female is streaked.