Red-winged blackbirds can be both the easiest and most difficult birds to identify, depending on the gender. The male birds, named for their prominent field marks, are unmistakable, but female birds are far more camouflaged and difficult to discern. By learning the key clues to identify red-winged blackbirds, birders will never again be embarrassed to mistake one of these Icteridae family birds for a sparrow, cowbird, grackle or other similar species.
Male red-winged blackbirds are some of the easiest blackbirds to identify because they are aptly named for their more outstanding field mark, but there are additional clues that distinguish them from other species. Check for these clues to be sure you're seeing a male red-winged blackbird:
- Bill: The bill is a long triangle shape with a sharp point and is a uniform black color. If the bird is singing, the raspy trilling is also distinctive.
- Shoulders: This bird's scapulars are its best field mark, with a large, bright red patch at the top of the shoulder bordered by yellow or orange-yellow at the base. The amount of color that is visible can vary, however, and the yellow patch may be hidden entirely. When calling, these birds puff out their scapulars to seem even larger.
- Plumage: Other than the colorful shoulder patch, the overall plumage is a rich, uniform black that may appear shiny or glossy in bright light but does not show colorful iridescence.
- Tail: The red-winged blackbird's tail is medium-long and solid black. It is slightly rounded, a shape best seen in flight or when the tail is slightly spread.
- Habitat: These birds are widespread but typically prefer marshy areas with plentiful reeds and cattails. They are also found in varied scrub habitats and may occasionally visit backyard feeders.
Female red-winged blackbirds can be very challenging to identify and often confuse even experienced birders because of their strong resemblance to marsh-loving sparrows. To properly identify these females, these clues are essential:
- Bill: Like the male, the female red-winged blackbird has a sharply triangular black bill. Depending on the angle of viewing, it can seem that the bill slopes at the same angle as the forehead, without a severe dip at the base where the bill and head join. Her bill is typically longer than a sparrow's bill, and more sharply pointed.
- Facial Colors: There is a distinct yellowish tinge to a female red-winged blackbird's face, particularly on the lores, chin, and throat. The extent of the yellow can vary but provides a good clue to this bird's identity.
- Facial Markings: A pale eyebrow, dark eye line, and dark malar stripes are distinctive markings on the female's face.
- Shoulders: While the female red-winged blackbird lacks the bold scapulars of the male, she may show a tinge of red or rust on the shoulder and throughout the upperparts. This can be very difficult to see, however, particularly at a distance.
- Underparts: The female's underparts are buff but are heavily and thickly streaked with dark brown or black. Unlike most sparrows or finches, the heavy streaking continues all the way to the undertail coverts, without fading or narrowing.
- Tail: The medium-long tail is slightly rounded but may show a faint central notch depending on posture and how the tail is held.
- Habitat: These blackbirds prefer marshy, reedy areas, particularly where cattails are abundant to provide a supply of soft nesting material. They will often cling to a single stalk or may straddle between two when perched. Females often perch lower and are more hidden than males, who may perch right at the top of a stalk.
Flying Red-Winged Blackbird
In flight, red-winged blackbirds can be identified by both physical and behavioral clues. Watch for these indications that a bird flying by is a red-winged blackbird:
- Plumage: A male's overall glossy black plumage is easy to see in flight, while females will look like relatively dark brown-black blurs.
- Shoulders: The red scapulars of a male red-winged blackbird are easily visible in flight, though the typical yellow bottom border is more difficult to see unless the bird is nearby or flying relatively slowly.
- Flight Pattern: These birds are rapid, direct fliers with fast wing beats that take them on a straight path to their destination. They may glide as they come in to land but rarely glide during the flight itself.