Wilderness Underfoot: The red-winged blackbird

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StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11836625018960.jpg’, ”, ‘Female (left) and male (right) red-winged blackbirds – Agelaius phoeniceus are found throughout most of North America, from southern Alaska to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. In northern regions, including Illinois, the birds are migratory, but many southern red-winged blackbirds remain in the same location throughout the year.‘);

This may be the most common and widespread of all North American birds.

It’s nearly impossible to mistake the male red-winged blackbird with its charcoal black body and deep reddish epaulet (shoulder patch). The female’s coloration looks much like a sparrow, with streaks of brown, tan, white and gray. Sometimes she may also show a tiny patch of red like the male.

Red-winged blackbirds are found in a variety of habitats, but they’re most abundant in wetlands and marshes. They’re not typically found in the back yard, however, unless you live near streams, prairies or wetlands.

This time of the year, you’ll spot lots of red-winged blackbirds near wet ditches on the edge of the highway, where they tend to nest in small trees and tall wildflowers such as chicory, wild mustard and cattails.

During breeding season, males defend territories that can include more than a dozen nesting females. Each red-winged blackbird nest holds three to four bluish eggs marked with dark streaks or splotches. Between early May and late July, females may raise two or three clutches of young, while males stand watch over their the territory. The nestlings are fed a nutritious diet of insects.

When disturbed, adult red-winged blackbirds spring up out of the nesting sites and chatter from nearby trees or telephone lines—and they may protect their young by aggressively diving and pecking intruders, attacking much larger animals, including humans.

Once the young have fledged (feathered and left the nest), they’ll display color patterns similar to the adult females. Males don’t acquire their full adult coloration until their third year. Before that, they may go through color variations that look more like females, to patchy or solid black.

Adult red-winged blackbirds feed on insects, grains, seeds and, occasionally, fruit. Among their insect prey are 17-year cicadas. These birds are helpful in controlling populations of insect pests.

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