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