Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, Tordo Sargento (Spanish), Chuleeb (Mayan)
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 females may be wry
To tempt another guy
To come on over and give it a try
which now is why
to let skulking females lie
who then give each new male a sigh
“You’re no longer my only partner, Blackbird, bye, bye!”
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.
Typically males establish territories before females arrive. I wonder if this flock was the arrival of females and juveniles or just juvenile males? 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.
Meanwhile the females typically prowl low in the wetland vegetation. 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.)
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, but sometimes females have these too. (I just learned this in 2021; check out the link to The Auk article in the reference list.)
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 defending his domain, which can also include up to 15 females and their nests!
Research indicates a female picks a mate by the quality of the territory to meet her and her future family’s needs rather than those impressive scarlet epaulets. However, DNA studies show the selected male isn’t the father of all chicks hatched in his terrain. Maybe that is “Splendor in the Grass” for the female. Hmmm, Hanky Panky in the Grass. (I wonder if the male is “a jealous phoenician”? Hey, read the scientific name slowly, 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 from other males. Must be a covert operation.
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. As a strong flier, it may cover fifty miles from its roost to a feeding area daily.
I felt lucky to observe a male forage for insect larvae from marshy stems. This technique, called gaping, involves using the lower bill to pry open aquatic plant sheaths to expose hidden insects/larvae. Also they forage under rocks in streams or objects on ground or on floating plants. Food can be simply picked up or gleaned off plants.
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 to Costa Rica.
Friend and bird mentor, Barbara MacMillan, 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:
Barbara MacMillan, email correspondence
Sal a Pajarear, Birds & Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and North Central America, A Stokes Field Guide To Birds, Eastern Regions, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. 1.
Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,” photographer and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 56 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her monthly column features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and also wildlife beyond the Yucatan.
Contact: email@example.com All rights reserved, ©Cherie Pittillo
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