Published On: Mon, Jul 6th, 2015

BACKYARD BIRDING IN MERIDA, YUCATAN AND BEYOND – HANKY PANKY IN THE GRASS: RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD

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Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” zoologist, photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond. Contact: all4birdies@gmail.com  All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo

 

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, (Spanish) Tordo alirrojo, Tordo capitán, Mayito de la ciénaga,

 

Red-winged Blackbird perches high

with feathers the color of inky dye

He sings all day until nigh

Hoping his territory and song will vie

for at least one sweetie pie

Or three or more, oh my

To form a breeding season tie

But the female may be wry

To tempt another guy

To come on over and fly by

which now is why

to let slinking females lie

who then give each new male a sigh

to say,”You’re no longer my partner, Blackbird, bye, bye!”

Male Red-winged Blackbird

Male Red-winged Blackbird

Conk-la-lee!

 

Conk-la-lee!

 

SOUND: https://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/23283

 

A male Red-winged Blackbird raises its vivid red epaulets, spreads out its wings and tail, and loudly announces to all other male redwings in this San Crisanto, Yucatan wetland, “This is my territory! Keep off my turf!” He may spend up to one/half of his day defending his domain and attracting and keeping mates.

 

When I first spied this vociferous male, I hadn’t realized the epaulets (shoulder patches) lifted up off the wing. How reminiscent of flag semaphores at sea! For example, a US Navy signalman handholds two short poles with a red and yellow square flag on each pole to convey messages from a distance.

Raised epaulet of Red-winged Blackbird male

Raised epaulet of Red-winged Blackbird male

Red shoulder patch raised above yellow epaulet of male Red-winged Blackbird

Red shoulder patch raised above yellow epaulet of male Red-winged Blackbird

Typically males establish territories before females arrive. I wonder if this flock was the arrival of females and juveniles. Then the territorial males joined in the flight. After several circlings, the flock broke up and some stayed in the area while others flew away.

A flock of females

A flock of females

A mixed flock

A mixed flock

Perched high, the male can easily be seen by other males and females as he flashes his epaulets and shouts out his song. Meanwhile the females typically prowl low in the wetland vegetation.

Brilliant red shoulder patches of the Red-winged Blackbird flash a warning to other males of his territory

Brilliant red shoulder patches of the Red-winged Blackbird flash a warning to other males of his territory

A female Red-winged Blackbird looks like a sparrow on steroids with a brown streaked body. (Okay, this female looks fat, but she was just fluffing her feather parts in order. The second photo shows a typical female.)

I think a female Red-winged Blackbird looks like a sparrow on steroids

I think a female Red-winged Blackbird looks like a sparrow on steroids

Normal-sized female Red-winged Blackbird

Normal-sized female Red-winged Blackbird

Bird mentor friend, Bev, and I spent many minutes trying to identify a flock of five “overgrown sparrows” in a wet cow pasture near Rio Lagartos. This timely lesson also showed us that young males and females look like the adult females too. I even mistook a male for a female until it flew and showed me its future red patches.

Young redwing male looks like a female

Young redwing male looks like a female

Reddish shoulder patches identify a young male Red-winged Blackbird

Reddish shoulder patches identify a young male Red-winged Blackbird

The streaky-brown coloration camouflages the female and her cup-like nest hidden in marsh vegetation, shrubs, or trees. She weaves her nest with wet leaves, rotten wood, and coats the inside with mud. Finally she lines her architectural efforts with dried grasses. One USA nest, four to seven inches across and about that deep contained 34 strips of willow bark with 142 cattail leaves; some were two feet long. I would call that Splendor in the Grass.

 

The mated female builds the nest, lays the eggs, performs all the incubation, and feeds the chicks. Once the chicks leave the nest, then both parents feed the young. Meanwhile the male stays busy in defending his domain, which can also include up to 15 females and their nests. Not only does a female pick a mate by how he looks but she checks out the quality of the territory to meet her and her future family’s needs.  However, DNA studies show the selected male isn’t the father of all chicks hatched in his terrain. Hmmm, Hanky Panky in the Grass. (I wonder if the male is “a jealous phoenician”? Hey, look at the scientific name, Agelaius phoeniceus.)

 

In addition to courtship of several females, males will defend against predators such as hawks and owls, and yes, even horses and people. But outside of his territory this robin-sized bird can cover up his red feathers to reduce aggression.  Must be a covert operation.

Red-winged Blackbirds will defend against hawks and owls like this Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

Red-winged Blackbirds will defend against hawks and owls like this Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

 

The omnivorous diet varies from frogs and fledglings to eggs and carrion to arachnids, worms, and insects like dragonflies and butterflies. Other sources state this species primarily eats insects in the summer during mating season. In winter it forms huge flocks and feeds on grains and seeds especially in croplands. I felt lucky to observe a male use his bill to probe marshy stems and then pry out several insect larvae.

 

Red-winged Blackbird probes aquatic vegetation for insects and their larvae

Red-winged Blackbird probes aquatic vegetation for insects and their larvae

 

Male Red-winged Blackbird rewarded with insect grub

Male Red-winged Blackbird rewarded with insect grub

 

Not only is the Red-winged Blackbird one of the most studied species in bird behavior, it is also the most abundant bird in the US and Canada. They are found along both saltwater and freshwater marshes, woody swamps, fallow fields, croplands, roadside ditches, and sedge meadows. Its range extends from Alaska down to the Yucatan Peninsula. Friend Barbara explained the Red-winged Blackbird is a Yucatan resident, which moves around in the peninsula according to the wet and dry seasons. When ponds or coastal lagoons dry up, they may disappear from sight. Perhaps it molts during this time. While it waits for new feathers to grow, it hunkers down and hides in marsh vegetation. This disappearance also occurs in the US and Canada during the molt.

 

GO ON THE PROWL TO DISCOVER NATURE’S WONDERS.

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on details about this species: http://biology.allaboutbirds.org/a-flash-of-brilliance-red-winged-blackbird-territorial-displays/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_semaphore, http://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/red-winged_blackbird,  SOUND: https://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/23283 from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, A Stokes Field Guide To Birds, Eastern Regions, Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. 1., http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/id, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=1807, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Agelaius_phoeniceus/

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  1. bruce says:

    Another winner! Love the poem. So much I didn’t know about RWBL–a bird we kind of take for granted and hope they don’t come to the feeders. Wonderful pictures as usual. Being from SC, I always thought the males were singing ‘Con-ga-ree’

    • Cherie Pittillo says:

      Thanks, Bruce.

      I agree with you, Bruce, about the RWBL. In SC it sings “Con-ga-ree” and at Savannah Wildlife Refuge, it sings, “Og’le-tree”.

  2. Eugenie Martell says:

    Practical commentary – I was fascinated by the insight . Does someone know where my company might be able to get access to a fillable 2007 SC DoR I-309 form to edit ?

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