The Red-Winged Blackbird: An Early Migrator

There is a lot happening in northern Vermont during the middle of March. The maple sap begins to flow, new growth can be spotted on some shrubs, and the animals begin to emerge from hibernation.  

The weather also fluctuates during this time.  One day it may be sunny and in the mid 40s. Then the next day it will be cold and we will get 10 inches of snow. Given that you never know what tomorrow’s weather is going to be, it is always a relief when the migratory birds appear. They are a reminder that winter is loosening its grip on the land, and spring is on the way.  

The Birds of March

The migratory birds that return to Vermont in March are referred to as the “early migrators”.  These birds are the first one to return and stake their claims to their preferred breeding areas. The common early migrators are the Red-winged Blackbird, the American Robin, the Eastern Phoebe, the American Woodcock, the Common Grackle, the Brown-headed Cowbird, and sometimes the Turkey Vulture. 

I have not seen, nor heard, any of these migratory birds yet this year.  But there have been reports of the Red-winged Blackbird in my area.

The Red-winged Blackbird

The male red-winged blackbirds are fairly easy to identify.  They average between 7 and 9 inches in length and are glossy black with bright red and yellow patches on their shoulders. During the breeding season red-winged blackbirds can be found in wetlands, marshes, and shrubby areas. The males usually perch on the tops of cattails or other elevated locations.  The females, however, stay closer to the ground feeding on insects, spiders, and seeds. The females also look very different from the males. They are primarily brown with lots of streaking in their feathers and are sometimes mistaken for sparrows.  

Red-Winged Blackbird (Male)/Photo Credit: Connor Charchuk
Red-Winged Blackbird (Male)/Photo Credit: Connor Charchuk
Red-Winged Blackbird (Female)/Photo Credit: Andrew Simon
Red-Winged Blackbird (Female)/Photo Credit: Andrew Simon

Red-Winged Blackbird Voice

The red-winged blackbird has a very distinct voice.  Its call is often described as: “conk-la-lee”.  This is a good description, but I really like the description given in The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North American.  Sibley describes the song as “several liquid notes followed by a harsh gurgling trill kon-ka-reeeee(1) I feel like this description really fits what I hear from these birds.  

You can listen to this song here.

The Migration Story

The red-winged blackbirds’ are considered short to medium distance migrators.(2) Short distance migrators usually travel under a hundred miles, whereas medium distance migrators will travel a few hundred miles.  What this means is that the red-winged blackbirds’ winter residence and their summer/breeding grounds are usually fairly close together. In fact, some southern and western flocks of red-winged blackbirds don’t even migrate.(3)

Red-Winged Blackbird Range Map/Photo Credit: All About Birds
Red-Winged Blackbird Range Map/Photo Credit: AllAboutBirds

When looking at a range map for the red-winged blackbird you can notice that most of the United States is considered year-round residence for these birds.  However, parts of northern New England, the Great Lakes, northern parts of Montana and Minnesota, Canada, and a few spots in Alaska  are only identified as breeding territories. 

Red-winged blackbirds make the transition from their winter territories to the summer breeding areas in early spring.     

Roosting

Red-winged blackbirds are known to participate in communal roosting.  Roosting is basically a period of inactivity that is similar to human sleep. Communal roosting is the practice of roosting in large groups.  Red-winged blackbirds join large communal roosts during the winter, but not during the breeding season.  It is estimated that there can sometimes be a couple of million birds in a single communal roost.  These large roosts can include other types of blackbirds and starlings.(4)

These birds often leave their communal roost in the early morning and then travel up to 50 miles during the day foraging for food before returning to the roost for the evening.(4)

Red-winged Blackbird/Photo Brett Sayles
Red-winged Blackbird/Photo Brett Sayles

A Poem for the Blackbird. 

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a poem from Wallace Steven’s first book, Harmonium (1923)  This poem consists of 13 short stanzas that talk about the blackbird.  Although this poem does not specifically talk about the red-winged blackbird, it is such an enjoyable piece of writing that I felt it should be included here. Below are my four favorite stanzas from this poem.  

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.  

XII
The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

(Read the complete poem at Poetry Foundation.org)

If you have a favorite poem about the red-winged blackbird, feel free to share below.


Resources:

  1. David Allen Sibley; The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North American
  2. Steve Hagenbuch: Migratory Birds and Nor’easters: VT Audubon
  3. “Red-winged blackbird, Range Map”; AllAboutBirds.org
  4. “Red-winged blackbird, overview”; AllAboutBirds.org
  5. Wallace Stevens: Harmonium
  6. Wallace Stevens: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; Poetry Foundation

Looking for something else to read? The Naturalist Weekly bookstore has several curated lists of books about poetry, haiku, and birds. We even have gift cards that can be used throughout the store.   

Naturalist Weekly runs on coffee and a passion for writing.  Your donation will keep the coffee pot full and the content flowing!


Redwinged blackbird/Photo by Frank Cone
Photo by Frank Cone

25 thoughts on “The Red-Winged Blackbird: An Early Migrator

Add yours

  1. a delicious dessert to my late lazy lunch today – thanks Mark. That re-winged male is not a little bit show-offy is he now, using the colours of German flag no less – or would that be the other way round? 😉 – I had never heard or seen of red-winged blackbirds before. Are they unique to your parts? It’s nice to marvel at new knowledge – like that of the poem you conclude with. Time for a cofee, before I had off to look up poem and poet.

    1. Hi Barbara, The red-winged blackbird is common in the US and Canada. They can be quite boisterous and do show off a bit.
      I did think that these birds were native to North America, but I did find this article from 2017 that described the first sighting of a female red-winged blackbird on a Scottish Island: https://www.audubon.org/news/british-birders-chartered-private-flights-see-europes-first-red-winged-blackbird
      So, keep you eyes open. They may be headed your way.

  2. The first wave of early migrators has reached the uplands of New York– the robins, redwings, song & fox sparrows, even the eastern phoebe– not that they are liking this latest winter cold snap but, thankfully, more are on the way. Thanks, too, for the Stevens poem– always a joy to read!

    1. Hi Walt, We just about two feet of snow overnight! I had to run the snowblower twice to keep the driveway clear. I think we still have a few weeks before the robins show up around here. I have talked to a few people who have said the red-winged blackbirds were around. They may be regretting that choice now.
      Thanks for the comment. I hope all is well,

  3. Lovely article, Mark. Included is a haiku I wrote quite a few years ago. It’s in my poetry book, Three Breaths.

    March blizzard
    red-winged blackbirds
    flock to feeder
    ~Nancy Brady

    1. Hi Lisa, Thanks for sharing! I remember the Hemingway and Stevens story that you share in the beginning of your post. I haven’t seen a starling yet either. Maybe they will show up before April begins.

  4. Earlier this week a gentleman from Vermont stopped in at the park where I volunteer. We talked about your state for a while and I mentioned that I once had a neighbour who owned some acreage in Vermont on which she grew maple trees and how she would gift us a tin of syrup at Christmas. Nothing better than good syrup.

  5. There is a local pond I take walks at often that these blackbirds are fond off. It is always a thrill to see them – I love their colors! I had no idea how widespread red-winged blackbirds are. I enjoy the fact that we both like this kind of bird – it makes the geographic distance seem less, if that makes sense. 🙂

    1. Hi Tressa, I hear you about how the birds can bridge the distances. Finding these kind of commonalities has an amazing way of shrinking the world. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

    1. Yes, it seems like that is very dependent of their breeding residence. The southern ones seem to be content without the migration. Fascinating that there is that difference in behaviors.

  6. I’ve heard the Red-Winged Blackbirds, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see a pretty male before. I didn’t know that this was the bird I was sometimes hearing until I followed your link. Thank you!

    1. Hi Melanie, I am surprised that you have heard them but not seen them. They don’t seem like shy birds over here on the east coast. In fact, they can be quite boisterous! I am glad that you found the link useful. Talk soon

  7. I saw one recently sitting on top of the sea grass, as I drove the bus on the backroads. I was going to write about him–and didn’t. I’m so glad that you did, Mark! Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Adele, What a cool sighting! It is pretty neat seeing them hang out on the tops of the grasses. Bobolinks also do something similar. Thanks for the kind words. Talk soon,

  8. When I lived in the midwest, Red-winged Blackbirds were everywhere. Now I’m in the southeast and it feels like a rare treat to see one. I saw some this past week. Hooray! I’m also starting to see some other early spring migrants headed north. It’s an exciting time of year to be a birdwatcher!

    1. Hi Lizzie, That sounds exciting to see the birds migrating through the area. I sometimes feel like we are at the end of the line here. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I was always fascinated by red-winged blackbirds. I’d only see them perched on cattails near lakes and ponds, but those brightly colored wing spots were impossible to miss. I’ve never come across the poem by Wallace Stevens until now (thanks for this). He’s got some incredible observations and I’ll be checking out the entire poem as soon as I finish typing this comment. Also, I was surprised by the stark difference in plumage between the male and female of this species. Another top-notch article, Mark. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I have to agree with you on the amazing difference in the coloration between the male and female. Right after I wrote this piece and was still looking at the birds, I notice what looked like a slightly larger sparrow outside. I am pretty sure it was a female red-winged blackbird. I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it if I hadn’t just looked at these photos. I hope you enjoyed the rest of Wallace Stevens’ poem!

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