• ljmarkson

Red-Winged Blackbirds are Special

Updated: Jan 17

Years ago, when I had a lawn with a sad, lonely bird feeder in the middle of it, I would senselessly chase away flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds because I didn’t want them eating the birdseed I put out for the “special” birds I thought deserved to be there. I considered Red-winged Blackbirds common “trash birds” and not worthy of even being in my yard. I didn’t know the most common bird throughout the year in Georgia is the Northern Cardinal, followed by the Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove , Red-Bellied Woodpecker and many of the other birds I was incomprehensibly trying to “curate” at my feeder for a personalized backyard nature show.

I once thought the wildlife in my yard was there for my personal nature show and it was up to me to decide who belonged. I put out the welcome mat for the four most common birds in Georgia (Tufted titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, and Eastern Cardinal) and the visiting, less common Red-winged Blackbirds were denied entry. Now everyone is welcome!

Red-winged Blackbirds are not really that common and do not even make the top 20 list in Georgia because despite their large numbers nationally and when they flock, they only appear for a couple months at most in select areas of the South. Their summer habitats are marshes or wet meadows and they prefer foraging at ground level. When they migrate South in winter they may roost in marshes but show up anywhere they can find food including backyard bird feeders.

As bird numbers decline, complaining about flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds seems out of touch. It's better to enjoy the antics of ravenous Red-winged Blackbirds at the bird feeder and just buy more seeds!

My husband thought the Red-winged Blackbirds were fascinating and loved watching their antics. He asked me why I was so harsh towards them. I told him they were greedy and ate all the birdseed. He pointed out that I put out a birdfeeder for birds, they were birds, they need to eat, and we could afford to buy all the birdseed we wanted to keep the feeder full. His kindness and logic helped me soften a bit towards them, but it wasn’t until I transitioned my yard to a wildlife sanctuary that I embraced all wildlife as part of a healthy ecosystem and I realized the Red-winged Blackbirds belong there just as much as the Eastern Bluebirds (#12 on the most common birds in Georgia list!).

I put out the same welcome mat for the seasonal flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds as I do for the year round Eastern Bluebirds. Both are interesting in their own ways.

My changing view on Red-winged Blackbirds is another example of how I'm unlearning the idea that I’m in charge of deconstructing nature into what is desirable to me and banishing or destroying anything I don’t like for any reason. Multiply this thinking by every person on a street, in a city or country and the negative externality to the environment is exponentially destructive. It makes it easier to understand why insects, birds, and native plants are disappearing at an alarming rate.

There were many complaints about how greedy (I.e. hungry!) Red-winged Blackbirds are in a recent local Nextdoor post. It's strange how often we make character judgments about wildlife. The post was still encouraging because most of the six dozen responses were positive and even informative.

When a devastating study came out in 2019 showing there are 25% fewer birds in North America than there were 50 years ago, I realized every single bird needs our help. Even though Red-winged Blackbirds are still one of the most abundant birds in North America, like all birds, they have also decreased in number. Red-winged Blackbirds hold the world record for the highest count of a single species, with an estimate of 40 million individuals during an Audubon Christmas Bird Count in Arkansas in December 1964. A winter flocks of mixed birds can still have more than a few million birds in them and smaller groups of birds can spread out over 50 miles each day to forage and re-form at night to roost…but this number is nowhere near the 40 million Red-winged Blackbirds witnessed one day almost 60 years ago. We need to do everything we can to make sure seeing flocks of birds doesn’t become like the windshield phenomenon.

Murmerations are fascinating because of the number of birds in them. We need to protect all birds so a blur of red and black Red-winged Blackbirds swooping in and out of our yards doesn't become a phenomenon we only reminisce about.

I look forward to the sight of the first flock of Red-winged Blackbirds in late December and help sustain them until they leave to migrate back North in early March. They prefer to eat grains and seeds on the ground, so I put out cracked corn and sunflower seeds on platform feeders. When the visiting flocks seem to be at their peak, I’ll throw a few handfuls around the backyard because I know the Red-winged Blackbirds will work with other ground feeding birds, squirrels and chipmunks to make sure nothing will be left to attract rats.

When the Red-winged Blackbird numbers are large and I throw down a couple handfuls of black oiled sunflower seeds I can count on ground feeding birds like Mourning Doves to work with the blackbirds to make sure no seeds remain.

People love to complain about Red-winged Blackbirds overwhelming their bird feeders and claim they keep away all the other birds, but I’m not so sure this is the case. When they swarm, they take over, but I see plenty of other birds at the feeders and in my yard before and after they descend. I just need to refill the feeders more often.

Most birds leave the feeders when the Red-winged Blackbirds appear and return when they leave. Some birds like the Mourning Doves sometimes just roll with it, particularly if there's only a few blackbirds that appear.

I also have both tube style and platform feeders. Larger birds like Red-winged Blackbirds have a harder time getting the seed out of the tube feeder so there’s always food for the small birds. My small semi-urban yard is rewilded and my year-round birds are also not as dependent on my feeders in winter because there are plenty of leaves to poke through for insects on a nice day and seeds in my winter seedhead garden.

Many of the birds visiting my yard, including his cute little ruby-crowned kinglet eating aster seeds, prefer the dried native plant seedheads over the bird feeders. They're not competing with the Red-winged Blackbirds for food. (I updated the ID of the kinglet after a comment from a reader - thanks!)

I’ve noticed my yard gets quiet at some point in November and part of December during the migration transition when even the year-round birds become scarce. The return of the Red-winged Blackbirds seems to be related in timing to other birds also reappearing soon after, including flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings. There’s protective strength in numbers and maybe the Red-winged Blackbirds being in the area gives all the other birds a bit of cover from predators like neighborhood hawks. I don’t think we can fully understand how complicated the interdependence between the cycles of nature and wildlife are.

The smaller flocks of Robins and Cedar Waxwings that show up in my yard around the same time of years as the Red-winged Blackbirds tell me winter is here.

The following are just a few additional tidbits I learned about Red-winged blackbirds to drive home how special they are in many ways:

  • Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the nine types of blackbirds found in Georgia.

  • A group of blackbirds could also be called a cloud, cluster, or merl – great terms to know for a trivia contest!

  • Red-winged Blackbirds are highly polygamous meaning in this case that one male may have up to 15 different females making nests in his territory and he will fiercely defend it during breeding season. The females choose their mates based on how desirable their territory is so it’s not as one-sided as it may appear!

  • The average lifespan of the Red-winged Blackbird is 2 years in the wild and the oldest recorded Red-winged Blackbird in the wild lived for 15 years and 9 months.

  • When Red-winged Blackbirds migrate, they tend to separate themselves by sex . Females aren’t black and don’t have the signature red on their wings so I’m sure if the random black birds that don’t look like the others in the flock are females, European Starlings, or Common Grackles that often migrate together.

  • Red-winged Blackbird’s scientific name Agelaius phoenicus comes from the words for flocking and red which are the two things that stand out when you see them! Watching the Red-winged Blackbirds swoop in and out of our yard in a synchronized way (called murmerations) is a fascinating sight a few cute songbirds just can’t replicate.

  • The only thing I find unsettling about the Red-winged Blackbirds is the distinct low murmering sounds they make as they assemble in the trees before coming down to forage which reminds me of 1963 classic horror movie The Birds which has a timeless environmental theme to it. Around the 2 minute 40 second mark of a rare interview, Alfred Hitchcock explains the movie’s theme is about how man's taking nature for granted makes him complacent and man thinks he is the master of everything, but if nature turns on him, he’s in trouble.

Flocks of 100+ Red-winged Blackbirds are a wonderous sight, but unsettling for anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcok's movie The Birds.

I have no reservations welcoming all the Red-winged Blackbirds who want to visit my yard. They’re special enough to restock the birdfeeders for.

Red-winged Blackbirds travel in such large numbers that it is often overlooked how striking they are. If just one or two showed up for just a couple months of the year they would be highly anticipated and desired visitors!

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