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Red-winged blackbirds are earliest spring arrivals

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By Sylvia Brockner

Below my window is the roof of two buildings and two large paved parking lots that were scraped flat out of the hillside. Because of our hard rains, these are drained away to prevent puddling.

This drain opens out below the building I am in into a natural declivity in the landscape. There has formed a small stock tank-sized puddle, which is a lesson in successional biological development. First, a few seedling ponderosa pines follow the course of the pipe to the small pond formed at the bottom. Next, a few cattail seeds blew in on a breeze, which soon turned into a bowl of cattails in an otherwise dry hollow. Last week, a red-winged blackbird found this bit of a cattail marsh and claimed it as his nesting territory.

Now, he sings there regularly as he calls for a mate to help him with his nesting plans.

Red-winged blackbirds often are the earliest spring arrivals in the northern states for they winter in all of the southern states as far north as Maryland. The male arrives first and stakes out its desired nesting territory. It sings regularly from chosen perches to maintain its territory and to attract a female.

The nest is built near the base of old dry cattails where the joint is sturdy. Since they get such an early start, they almost always have two broods.

Their song is loud and easily learned. It is most frequently written as sounding like “chuck, chuck, chuck, o kal-lee-lee-lee” or some people say the last phrase is, “I’m a purple bee-be-be-be-bee.” Once you know it, you will remember it easily. They are such common residents of the cattail marsh at Evergreen Lake that it is a good place to study the many variations of their song.

In Europe, the blackbirds are the starlings, which now have broadly established themselves across most of the United States, and the mynas, which are less broadly established in Florida and warmer regions. In this country, we keep the European birds separated, and our blackbirds usually include the cowbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds and other blackbirds and grackles.

The male red-winged blackbirds are all jet black with red, yellow-orange or white at the bend of the wing. It is the wing coverts that make these brilliant shoulder epaulettes. The females have basically brown feathers with a white or light-tan edging. This edging is wider on its under parts, therefore making the bird appear lighter. They look like a giant sized sparrow since they are 8 to 10 inches long.

Red-winged blackbirds came into Evergreen Lake in the early 1970s after the lake was dredged, and cattails had been established. They have nested in the cattails at the west end of the lake for many years now. When they first arrived, they usually left for the winter, but they soon learned that local feeders were available, and now the flock spreads out each day to take advantage of local feeders and returns each night to the marsh to roost.