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Rithet's Bog LogoThe Birds of Broadmead: Red-winged Blackbird

BARA Bugle (Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter), Fall 2006 - John Lucas


We all know, or we have been told, that life is made up of simple pleasures. To me, one of the greatest of these “simple” pleasures is the sight of a red-winged blackbird swaying in a gentle breeze on a cat tail (rush) at Rithet’s Bog. This is a very common, ordinary bird, it is true, but when I was a child my eldest brother, sixteen years my senior and interested in all forms of flight: birds, insects, planes and Superman - patiently and poetically set forth the idea that this blackbird was indeed very, very special.

Eugene held that the bird’s specialness resided in its intelligence, its ability to survive. This is not the same bird as the redwing or blackbird in Europe, but completely different. They never made the trip to Europe, he said, and so they never wound up in pies served to kings like those dimwits over there. They had heard rumours and stayed away. That’s why there are so many of them.

My brother said they were grand birds, proud winged wonders with a Latin name to match their spirit: Agelaius phoeniceus, and with a name like that they could afford to dress all in black, unlike some showoff birds he could name. The flashes, brilliant red and royal yellow, on their shoulders are called epaulettes, like the ones on military uniforms. And rightly so, Eugene said, because each male is a little general, at least in his own mind. When red-winged blackbirds migrate north they fly in same sex flocks and the brave male always arrives at a destination up to three days before the smaller female to scout things out and ensure the safety of the ladies. Of course, as with all little generals, there is a lot of self-interest here as well: Arriving early means getting the best sites and the most females. Each male will “protect” up to ten females and aggressively defend his primary nest and those of the females in his territory, not only against other red-winged males, but any bird it considers threatening to the nests, including hawks. Even humans are not exempt from a red-winged dive bomber. This is a full-time job as a male and a female can produce three clutches of three to five eggs in a season. With a sly glance in my direction Eugene informed me that the male birds were polygynous, and that the females copulated with males other than their protector and that the clutches could be of mixed parentage. Suddenly all of this became a whole lot more interesting.

Red-winged blackbirds are not only smart and daring, they are strong and probably could take over North America if they so chose. They breed as far north as Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, south to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico and Guatemala. You can even find some in El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica. They will winter as far north as Pennsylvania and British Columbia. Don’t get on their wrong side, Eugene warned. Treat them with respect.

In addition to their strength the red-winged blackbird possesses sublime grace. They are perching birds, or passerines, Eugene said, the word slipping off his tongue as lightly as a blackbird landing on a waving blade. Strength and grace are a successful combination: passerines are one of the most successful of all vertebrate orders, with about five-and-a-half thousand species. I thought it was funny that this tough group took its name from the little house sparrow, Passer domesticus. Eugene put his fingers to his lips and whispered that I should never underestimate any of these guys, even the littlest of them. Respect, he said. Only years later when I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, did I appreciate his words!

My brother said the red-wings have great taste in food, dining on seeds, insects, mollusks, little animals, and in season on blueberries, blackberries, and other fruit. His long-ago voice bridges the gulf of the years passing every time I see one of these beautiful creatures feeding.

Red-winged blackbirds prefer marshy areas, giving us one more reason to be grateful for Broadmead and Rithet’s Bog.

(This is the first in a series of articles on Broadmead Birds written by John Lucas)

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