Red-Winged Blackbird

Agelaium phoeniceus

Red-Winged Blackbird

Connor Mah/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

One of the first birds to return to its northern nesting grounds in early spring, the stark plumage and loud raspy song of the red-winged blackbird is welcome to many birders. Because this member of the Icteridae family can gather in flocks of millions of birds, it is also one of the most familiar and most abundant birds in North America. Despite its popularity, however, there are always more red-winged blackbird facts to learn!

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Agelaium phoeniceus
  • Common Name: Red-Winged Blackbird, redwing
  • Lifespan: 2-3 years
  • Size: 8.5 inches
  • Weight: 2.9-3.1 ounces
  • Wingspan: 13 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Red-Winged Blackbird Identification

While the markings of the red-winged blackbird are excellent clues for its identification, there are more features birders should note to feel confident about proper identification, particularly of females. The sharply pointed, elongated triangular bill is a great clue that can distinguish this bird from sparrows and finches, and both males and females have this bill. Their overall coloration and markings, however, are very different.

Males are allover glossy black with bold red shoulders with a bottom yellow or buff streak, though the lighter streak can be easily hidden based on the bird's posture. A bicolored subspecies in central California has all red shoulders. Females are mottled brown and black with two thin buff wing bars, a thin brown malar stripe, brown crown, buff or yellow lores, a buff or white eyebrow, and heavily streaked underparts. Some females may show rusty red on the shoulders, though it can be difficult to see. In winter, males show some buff, tan, or rusty mottling similar to females and their shoulder colors are much more muted.

Juveniles look similar to adult females but show paler underparts. As young males mature, they develop a scaly look until they achieve their full glossy black plumage.

These birds have a loud voice and a distinct warble song ending with a harsh raspy trill that is the most emphasized beat. Call notes include a raspy "chek" or "pik" and an elongated "jeet" note, as well as warbling rattles. When in large flocks, the calls and songs of these birds can be overwhelming.

Red-Winged Blackbird vs. Tricolored Blackbird

The red-winged blackbird looks very similar to the tricolored blackbird, but there are clues that help distinguish these birds. Red-winged blackbirds have a yellow or buffy lower bar on their colorful wing patch, while the tricolored blackbird's wing patch is clearly red and white. The tricolored blackbird also has a much smaller range and is only found in California and northern Baja, Mexico, with small, isolated breeding colonies in central Washington and Oregon. Red-winged blackbird females are often somewhat lighter than tricolored blackbird females, which can appear more uniformly dark.

Red-Winged Blackbird Habitat and Distribution

The red-winged blackbird can be found in damp fields, marshes, woodland edges, and scrub riparian areas year-round, as well as agricultural fields, meadows, and prairie-like habitats. Their range extends throughout the continental United States except for the coldest northern areas and the Appalachian Mountains, with some year-round birds as far south as central Mexico and Baja.

Migration Pattern

In summer, the red-winged blackbird's breeding range extends to all of boreal Canada and southern Alaska, and in the winter these birds migrate to western and central Mexico. During spring, males migrate earlier to stake their territories and prepare to attract females.

Behavior

Red-winged blackbirds are highly social and form flocks all year, though during spring and summer the flocks are relatively small. After the breeding season, flocks may number millions of birds and may include other blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and European starlings. These are also aggressive birds and are known to mob and chase intruders away from their territory, including hawks, livestock, and humans. Males have a dominance display posture with wings partly spread, tail splayed, and shoulders hunched to show off the color patch prominently.

Diet and Feeding

These blackbirds are omnivorous and sample a wide range of foods. Seeds and grains make up most of their diet, but they also eat large amounts of berries, fruit, insects, and spiders. Red-winged blackbirds that live near creeks and deeper marshes often eat mollusks as well.

Nesting

These are polygamous birds. The female builds a shallow, cup-shaped nest of grasses, moss, weeds, mud, and twigs, positioning it on the ground in a slight depression or rut. Nests may also be placed in low vegetation but are generally no higher than 12-15 feet above the ground.

Eggs and Young

The red-winged blackbird's oval-shaped eggs are pale bluish-green and blotched with browns, purples, and dark gray near the larger end for camouflage. Females will incubate each brood for 11-12 days, and the helpless young chicks are fed by the female parent for an additional 10-14 days. Red-winged blackbirds can produce 2-3 broods per year, each of which will contain 3-5 eggs.

Red-Winged Blackbird Conservation

While these birds are not considered threatened or endangered, they are still subject to a variety of threats. Since they are often found in agricultural areas, overspraying of pesticides and herbicides can contaminate their food supply and poison the birds. Nests can be destroyed by farm equipment or harvesting as well.

Tips for Backyard Birders

While these birds typically prefer more rural areas, they can be attracted to backyard bird feeders offering kitchen scraps, suet, and birdseed, particularly in open ground feeders or trays that can accommodate many birds. During migration periods, they may appear in yards unexpectedly but do not typically stay in the same area for an extended time.

How to Find This Bird

Red-winged blackbirds are easy to find, particularly in rural or agricultural areas. These birds will flutter through fields, often in small flocks as they wheel about and settle back into the grasses. Watch for males to be perched on reeds as they call and advertise their territory, and look for females to be lower in the brush and much more concealed.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Icteridae bird family includes not only blackbirds, but also grackles, cowbirds, orioles, troupials, oropendolas, caciques, and meadowlarks. More than 110 birds make up this diverse family, and some of the more fascinating relatives of the red-winged blackbird include:

Don't miss any of our other wild bird fact sheets to learn more about all your favorite hummingbirds, raptors, shorebirds, waders, ducks, and other amazing birds!