September 2015 Bird Photo of the Month

The Patriarch in Song Spread Display © J. R. Williams
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Handsome Red-winged Blackbird flashing red!  One of our most abundant bird species in the US, breeding in all lower 48 states, they reside in our pastures, roadside ditches, freshwater marshes, and suburban ponds. Photographer J.R. Williams took this audacious male, identifiable by yellow-lined, red wing patches on an all-black bird, in full display calling out with characteristic rattling song in territorial defense. The female is brown with a lighter eyebrow stripe and streaking on the breast, resembling a large, narrow billed sparrow.  Nonbreeding females roost and gather together without males so one might not immediately think to identify them as Red-winged Blackbirds.

One of the reasons for their abundance is that 90% males, staking out their territory, are polygamous, with an average of five partners. Each female had its own nest and brood. One male had mated with 16 females in his territory during one breeding season! Females were also polygamous as extra-pair males sired 23–48% of their nestlings serving to increase number of nestlings/nest.

Because our vast agricultural lands have replaced more diverse habitats that supported many other bird species, this open-habitat species has been encouraged. After nesting, they form huge aggregations that can stretch for miles. They are accused of devastating fields of rice, corn, and sunflowers. Farmers and municipalities often consider blackbirds noisy, destructive pests. Professionals kill blackbirds by poison, hunting, trapping, or spraying with detergents to remove the oils that protect, insulate, and waterproof their feathers so the bird dies of exposure to cold. Yet diet studies show that during spring, blackbirds’ primary food is 50-80% insects and 3-20% waste grain in agricultural areas.  In summer, the diet is 40-70% corn and grains.  However, in winter their consumption of 60% weed seeds like ragweed and cocklebur and harmful insects make them valuable to farmers and habitats.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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