Documents: Special Interest: Wildlife Gardening:

10 Neat Things About Red-Winged Blackbirds
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

May 21, 2017

1. Sexually dimorphic.

No, that doesn't mean some weird mating behaviour, although red-winged blackbirds do have a few quirky habits. It means that the males and females look totally different from one another. He sports a glossy black coat with flashy red and yellow epaulets while she is dressed in scruffy brown.

2. My hero.

Red-winged blackbirds are what they call polygynous, meaning that the male may have as many as 15 consorts, but the females in his harem may mate with others. Often, a clutch will contain eggs fathered by different males. His job is to defend the drab but promiscuous little ladies in his entourage.

3. Defending the harem.

Female red-winged blackbirds will nest in loose colonies so that their male can more easily defend them. They will crowd their 10 to 15 nests in a small territory, generally preferring to nest in reeds and rushes three to six feet above water. He is busy all day chasing other males away and fiercely attacking predators and nest raiders.

4. Room for one more.

The cow bird is a parasitic nester, a freeloader that likes to sneak an egg into the nest of another. They often do this to red-wings, as if Mama didn't have enough to do for her own brood of three to four eggs. Incidentally, cowbirds lay up to 36 eggs in a season - well, why not if you don't have to feed them? Red-wings, on the other hand, will typically have two broods, sometimes three, for which the female creates a new nest each time.

5. Where's Mama?

If you see a couple of male red-wings in your yard and wonder where the females are, they can be as far away as 50 miles. Red-wing blackbirds often feed many miles from where they roost. Of course, this begs the question, who's minding the harem while Mr. is out on the town?

6. All the kids look like Mom.

When the blue-green eggs with black, brown or purple markings hatch, the chicks all look like Mom with streaky brown feathers. Even the males stay like this for the first year until they become sexually mature, at which time they gain their glossy black suits and red epaulets.

7. Sexy red shoulders.

The male epaulets puff up when he is singing his mating song. However, when he is feeding, he prefers to be inconspicuous, so you may see only a bit of yellow. The red flashes when he is in his undulating flight.

8. Call out the mob.

Red-winged blackbirds have many enemies - they are often eaten by raptors. The young are the victims of snakes, minks, raccoons and other birds that raid the nests. Given the many dangers, red-wings can be forgiven for mobbing, banding together to attack any threat - including humans - that approaches their nests.

9. Winter vacation.

The most northern-dwelling blackbirds fly south for the winter, going back to the same place each year. They fly during the day.

10. As far as the eye can see.

Red-winged blackbirds are the most numerous of birds in the Americas, ranging from Alaska to Guatemala. Flocks may number in the millions and in a good year there can be up to 250 million breeding pairs - not that they stay in pairs, nor do they migrate together. Flocks are single-sex.

Dorothy Dobbie Copyright© Pegasus Publications Inc

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row