Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Conk-a-reeeee!” - Sign of Spring


Nine inches of black feathers - he stretches his neck skyward, opens his pointed bill and pours forth nasally , gurgling phrases, sounds which could only be called a “song” by another of this species. As he sings, his wings open in flightless display, and red epaulets flash with sun-drenched brilliance even on the grayest of days. The Red-wing Blackbird has returned.

In any year, regardless of the depth of the snow pack, the thickness of the ice on the pond, or the piled up disarray in the rivers and streams, when the Red-winged Blackbird proclaims his “conk-a-reee,” Winter is on the run, and Spring is imminent.

Some months ago, I did a post on my blog ( dismissing the popular notion that the robin is a sign of Spring. In our southeastern Vermont neighborhoods, the American Robin can be seen, and is seen, every month of the year. The coldest January day or the snowiest February day does not preclude the presence of robins.

Following the post, I received an email from a reader in Great Britain who told me that swallows are their sign of Spring. “Is that true in Vermont?” he asked. “If not, what bird is your sign of Spring?”

Swallows eat flying bugs, and they are not dependably present until Spring has completely defeated Winter (more or less). Tree Swallows may arrive fitfully in early April, but they are not secure in our area until late April.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive in Vermont in early March.

In our neighborhoods, I wrote to my correspondent, the sign of Spring is the Red-winged Blackbird. He arrives in southeastern Vermont on March 7, plus or minus two or three days. (Parentheses: a male Red-winged Blackbird was reported in Westminster in early February, but I think that poor guy was more than a little confused.)

Some Red-winged Blackbirds may winter as near as the Connecticut coast, but most gather much further south in flocks which may number in the thousands. They wander through farmland, marshes, forest edges and open fields, gleaning whatever food might be available.

The flocks are segregated; the boys hang with the boys and the girls with the girls. Among the boys, there is no rivalry, no posturing, no conflict. That only happens when the hormones begin their annual surge. By then the males are moving northward and the flocks are dispersing.

Winter flocks are typically male or female
By the time the Red-winged Blackbirds begin reaching our neighborhoods, the flocks are starting to break up. Individual males begin looking for breeding territory. When the ice goes out of our ponds and marshes, and plant life begins to reassert itself, the males will be there. Perched on a reed, cattail, or shrubby willow, they will stake their claim as proprietors, intimidating their rivals with red-wings and vocal prowess. “Conk-a-reeeee!”

When the drab females come along in another few weeks, by and large the males will have settled their real estate disputes. They’ll be ready to urge one or more females to make their territory home for a season.

The Red-winged Blackbird does not draw much attention from bird watchers except in March when it is one of the earliest of the summer residents to return (cowbirds and grackles often accompany them). It is a successful and adaptable species. Except during our Vermont winters, there is no shortage. It is one of those birds which should make it onto every day list of birds seen. So common is the Red-winged Blackbird, that it is easy to overlook its beauty ... and its toughness - it is a scrappy bundle of feathers.

Red-wings and song proclaim a male's territory
What the Red-wing’s song lacks in musical quality to our ears, it makes up for in volume. Inevitably, it draws my attention. I am then treated to the accompanying territorial or nuptial display. He holds the fore part of his wings well out from the shoulders. He spreads his shiny black tail. He bows his head and displays his bright red wing patches. It is an impressive display; one might even say thrilling. And if I have that kind of reaction, imagine what it can do for a female blackbird! Some males are so impressive that they attract two, three, or more mates. As many as fifteen females may comprise the harem of one very impressive (and busy!) male, making the species one of the most highly polygynous of all bird species.

The females get almost no help from the male in raising the kids. He is too busy defending his territory and ... well, you know. There are several factors which may explain why females choose to concentrate their nests in a single male’s territory. First, a good male has a good territory with plenty of food resources for the growing kids, and that means she can do the job without a lot of help from him. It is also theorized that multiple nests may provide  “safety in numbers.” A vigilant male can warn of predators, and may even be able to intimidate predators.

Female Red-winged builds the cup nest, incubates, and raises young.
Once the nuptials are concluded, the nondescript females seem to disappear into the confused tangle of the marsh while the male stands guard. He is vigilant, and fearless. A passing crow will draw his attack, as will a Northern Harrier, a bittern, or an Osprey. Neighbors will join the fray, and the passing intruder will be soon mobbed by angry blackbirds. On a misty, early morning, I once watched a Turkey Vulture laboriously take flight. It was all it could do to get airborne in the heavy atmosphere. The struggling vulture with its five and a half foot wingspan was soon hurried along by nine inches of black fury. The attacking Red-wing Blackbird pecked and prodded and harassed the backside of the hapless and probably harmless scavenger.

A few summers ago I needed to confirm the breeding presence of the Red-wing Blackbird within my assigned area for the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas project. There was no lack of blackbirds in the marshy fringes of the beaver pond, but I needed to find harder evidence. So I cautiously ventured into the soggy grasses. The slight change of angle enabled me to see a couple of nests - bulky open cups which were lashed to the reeds. But I quickly retreated. I had taken only a few steps - enough to send the Red-wings flying into hysteria. They fluttered over head, heaping maledictions on my head. They raced from reed to reed to shrub wailing at my intrusion into their domestic realm. Seldom have I felt less welcome.

I was a rather bumbling researcher in the Red-winged Blackbirds’ marsh. The real threats for which the sentinel males must stay on the alert, are predators. The male’s protective task is daunting - or he is not very good at it. Several studies have shown that about 40% of eggs and nestlings are lost to predators. The most common predators are raccoons, mink, and the Marsh Wren. Yes, Marsh Wren, a bird which is about half the size of the Red-winged Blackbird. It punctures eggs and kills young, but not for food. The Marsh Wren, like the voluble backyard House Wren, does not easily tolerate a mixed species neighborhood.

Female Red-winged Blackbird with food for her young.
The female Red-winged Blackbird chooses her male guardian for the quality of his territory and his ability to warn of danger and drive off threats. Does that make her true and loyal to her guardian. Not at all. Genetic studies have shown that she will mate with her male, the male from an adjoining territory, and a free-wheeling unattached male. Anywhere from 25-50% of nestlings are sired by an “extra-pair male.”  This presents me with the opportunity to do all kinds of tsk-tsking  and/or moralizing, which might be fun, but irrelevant. The genetic diversity which the female gathers, works. Females that have extra-pair copulations hatch more nestlings and produce more fledglings than females that are “faithful” to their mates.   

“Conk-a-reeee!” We may still have heavy, gray skies. Snow flakes may still fall. We may still have a winter storm to wait out. But when you hear the Red-winged Blackbird gargle, you know that it is Spring!

With epaulets showing, male Red-winged Blackbird intimates rivals and drives them from his territory.
Conk-a-reeee!” Good birding!

Posted by Chris Petrak - Tails of Birding


  1. A lovely post with great behavior shown in the images. I'm seeing the females here now so spring is well on its way.

  2. Wonderfully written post Chris! You really captured the Red-winged Blackbird well in this piece. Loved it!

  3. Wonderful post, Chris!! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Indeed, the RW Blackbird is a harbinger of spring and I so delight when I hear that first one!! A recent trip to Brazos Bend State Park in TX filled me with joy as the air was filled with their (song) and the trees surrounding the marsh filled with thier forms!! Hopefully I'll return home to the Atlantic Maritimes in time to observe their arrival. I enjoyed learning a few new things about the RWBB and smiled at the familiar. Thanks for a lovely post today. ~karen

  4. Wonderful, informative post filled with beautiful photographs! The marsh in the back of our property if filled with singing male Red-winged Blackbirds now. The females should arrive soon!

  5. Very nice post and wonderful photos. One of my favorite birds for just this reason, spring is coming.