Re-winged blackbirds are a familiar sight in marshy areas, along water courses, or even water hazards on a golf course. They may also be found in drier upland habitat if there is water nearby, and they will visit backyard bird feeders, especially when water is present. The male’s distinctive shoulder patches of red edged with yellow make them easy to spot. During breeding season, males select prominent perches- the top of a cattail, a fence-post, the exposed bare branch of an old shrubby willow- and offer their 'conk-a-leeee' songs to anyone available to listen. Individual territories are small, and in suitable habitat, nests may be built every 6 feet. Individual males mate with numerous females, so that within a small territory, which both males and females aggressively defend, there may be up to 15 nests.
Earlier this year, as I walked along the northern edge of Hermans pond, witnessing the strident displays of the males and the steadfast work of the females feeding their nestlings, I noted an abrupt change in their demeanor. Males and females alike moved to perch atop the cattails, all attentive and looking in the same direction. A Coopers hawk's shadow moved across the pond, and in accord the birds rose up to mob the actual owner of the shadow. The hawk flew on, the blackbirds circled back to the cattails, and within moments the group had returned to their previous activities, as seemingly self-absorbed as ever. And I walked on, heartened by the beauty, resilience and mystery of the natural world.
The male birds are so obvious during the breeding season and the females' demeanor so generally subdued, with streaked dark brown plumage and much time spent foraging along the ground and somewhat hidden from sight, a casual observer might not think them to be of the same species. However their obviously larger size, akin to a robin, sets them apart from similarly colored sparrows. Juveniles exhibit streaked plumage very much like the females.
During breeding and nesting, red-winged blackbirds primarily consume insects and aquatic invertebrates. In fall and winter, red-winged blackbirds often form large flocks with other blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and starlings, congregating on open fields, pastures and feedlots, consuming waste grain and feeding on native sunflowers and weed seeds like ragweed and cockleburs.
Red-winged blackbirds are such a common bird and can consume such large amounts of waste grain and seed at feeders, they may be viewed unfavorably. However, farmers have long considered their insect consumption in the spring and summer as a fair trade. Additionally, although red-winged blackbirds remain abundant over a wide range, their numbers have declined by 30% in the past 48 years.