Red-winged blackbirds are a feisty bunch

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By Sylvia Brockner

(Reprinted from Feb. 6, 2008)

Usually cold and wintry, February is made bearable by the first signs of spring — nothing as showy as the first daffodil in bloom, but still good, dependable signs of spring.

First the inlet at the lake grows larger, the shallow water in the wetlands and along the shore begins to melt, and red-winged blackbirds return to the cattail marsh. By the end of the month, a song sparrow may start to sing along Bear Creek near the bridge. These early signs of spring often come and go with the weather. A cloudy cold spell or another snowstorm may refreeze the marsh and stream edges. The blackbirds may retreat for a few days by dropping down to the flat lands. The song sparrow may stay, but his song is silenced and he skulks along the creek bank as they do in winter.

As we know full well, even March can bring more snowstorms, but in between each storm the weather ameliorates a bit more, and we know spring is on its way. Red-winged blackbirds dominate the cattail marsh in spring and summer, even well into the fall. They are interesting birds that have a rather strange social structure on their breeding grounds. The center of the marsh provides the best nesting sites and the most food; it is therefore, the most prized nesting territory. The biggest and strongest males fight for these sites, so the sites are small and the boundaries constantly defended. Males are polygamous and may allow several females to enter their territory.

Second-choice nest sites are those around the edge of the marsh. These sites provide less food and poorer cover, so they are larger in size, and the males allow fewer females to enter. When these sites are gone, the males must move out into the surrounding pastureland, fencerows and ditches. Such territories are even larger and therefore mean more work to defend, and the male usually has only one mate.

The females select their own nest site, build their own nest, lay the eggs, incubate the eggs and feed the young. All the male does is fertilize the female’s eggs and defend the territory. Mating is brief, but territorial defense is a constant battle. Only his chosen mate or mates may enter his hard-won territory, and his daily defense is a constant succession of skirmish and chase to keep all intruders out.

He must also protect the nest from predators such as crows, hawks, skunks, raccoons and snakes. The first small flock of red-winged blackbirds arrived at the lake a bit early this year, on Jan. 28. Their territorial song is unmistakable as it is both loud and exuberant. The repeated notes are a bit harsh to be pleasantly musical, but every country person has welcomed them each spring. It has been interpreted into human words in different ways by different people, but it is the unmistakable rhythm that we all recognize. Honk-a-ree, purple bee, konk-a-ree, konk-la-ree, conqueree, konk-ka-ree and belong-to-mee are but a few of the words used to represent their song.

These first early flocks may move on after a few days or a few hours, for they are often migrants moving farther north. When our resident birds arrive, after a few days of resting and looking over the marsh, they select their territory, and their song begins. The females arrive anywhere from a few days to two weeks later than the males. With their arrival, the territorial disputes, song and marsh ruckus reach their peak. In addition to their song, they have a loud chek flight call note and a high-pitched bussy zeer which is an alarm note. A marsh full of red-wings is a noisy place in spring.

At Evergreen Lake, the boardwalk runs along one edge of the cattail marsh, so one can easily see and hear these noisy male red-wings as they court their ladies. Spring will soon be here; watch for the antics of the male red-wings, and with binoculars you may be able to see the females build their nests and feed their young.