Red-Winged Blackbird

Agelaium phoeniceus

Red-Winged Blackbird - Male
Male. Photo © 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 gregarious bird can gather in flocks of millions of birds, it is also one of the most familiar and most abundant birds in North America.

Common Name: Red-Winged Blackbird, Red-Wing

Scientific Name: Agelaium phoeniceus

Scientific Family: Icteridae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Sharply pointed, elongated triangular shape, black
  • Size: 8.5 inches long with 13-inch wingspan, stocky build, sharp points on tail
  • Colors: Black, red, yellow, brown, white, buff, tan
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. 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.

    Foods: Seeds, grain, berries, fruit, insects, spiders, mollusks (See: Omnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    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. In summer, the 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.

    Vocalizations:

    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.

    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.

    Reproduction:

    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. The 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 altricial young 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.

    Attracting Red-Winged Blackbirds:

    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 backyards unexpectedly but do not typically stay in the same area for an extended time.

    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.

    Similar Birds:

    • Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor)
    • Tawny-Shouldered Blackbird (Agelaius humeralis)