Look for red-winged blackbirds near cattails, other wetland areas

Photo by Howard Walsh/Pixabay * A male red-winged blackbird guards his territory in the spring while attracting potential mates.

Photo by Howard Walsh/Pixabay * A male red-winged blackbird guards his territory in the spring while attracting potential mates.


If it is March or April in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia or Western North Carolina, for that matter, some birds are making their return after a season-long absence.

On one recent morning, a loud, familiar “kon-ke-ree” sounded from the tops of the cypress trees at the fish pond. In an instant, I realized that the resident male red-winged blackbird was back for another nesting season.

Red-winged blackbirds return yearly every March and begin to seek out nesting habitat in local wetland areas, such as the cattail marshes near my fish pond.

Last year, my first returning male red-winged blackbird arrived on the evening of March 3. This year, the first red-winged blackbird arrived on the morning of March 6. I heard his unmistakable song from inside my house.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbird male that’s once again taken up residence at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails has made himself right at home.

Male blackbirds arrive ahead of the females. My recent spring arrival perches daily in the willows and cypresses by the pond and has been singing every day since his return, but he’s still waiting for his intended audience to arrive. Female blackbirds lag a week or so behind the males in returning to their familiar territory.

Any wet field or marsh, especially those offering a stand of cattails, is almost certain to attract red-winged blackbirds at this time of year. I’d almost wager on that certainty.

The blackbirds arriving in spring behave much differently than the quiet, furtive flocks that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

“The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website.

At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize. Their loud antics are not designed solely to attract mates. Male red-winged blackbirds also sing to warn rival males from intruding into their territories.

The male red-winged blackbird is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh or even a damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged as females in feeding and tending their young. Males are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

According to the website All About Birds, male red-winged blackbirds spend much of the breeding season sitting on a high perch over their territories and singing almost without ceasing from dawn to dusk.

The website also notes that female blackbirds shirk the high profile of the males. They tend to skulk in wetland vegetation as they collect food or nest material.

Both males and females defend nests from intruders and predators. They take this duty quite seriously, as I know personally from being dive-bombed by parent blackbirds when I have gotten a little too close to their nests.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Female red-winged blackbirds lack the splashy plumage of males.


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