Blackbirds may herald an early spring
Published 11:15 am, Monday, March 6, 2017
The red-winged blackbirds are back. Those noisy, conspicuous denizens of wetland areas are one of the first birds to arrive in the “spring.”
Technically it would be considered the spring migration, but the arrival of the male red-winged blackbirds is so early it defies that description. To me, they can’t even be considered a harbinger of spring, but more of a cruel tease for spring.
We get a few warm days in February and suddenly the wetlands are alive and buzzing with male red-winged blackbirds staking out their territory. Then, two days later, the temperature plummets and snow blankets the ground again.
All New Englanders know that winter doesn’t end in February, but that’s when these hardy fellows arrive. The females, which resemble large sparrows, will arrive a few days or weeks later to check out the males and the nesting sites. The female will build her nest in the territory of the male she chooses.
Go to any marsh, swamp or other wetland these days and you very well may hear the familiar male red-winged blackbird’s call of “awwnk-ah-reeee!” Even better, get a look at one perched while he makes that call and see the red and yellow on his wings in full display.
My son Andrew used to call red-winged blackbirds “firebirds” when he was younger. It’s an apt name as in flight the red and yellow mix into orange and flicker through the air like an escaped ember from a campfire.
Not all male red-winged blackbirds take the risk of arriving in New England so early. Like so many situations in nature, it’s a matter of assessing risk and reward. The early arrivals have their pick of the best nesting sites and therefore the best chance of attracting females to their territory. However, a severe cold spell or deep snow that lingers and covers food sources could have dire consequences to the early males.
The early males are also more susceptible to being eaten as they arrive when food sources are scarce for predators such as hawks and foxes.
On the other hand, the late arriving male red-winged blackbirds have survived with plentiful food sources farther south. If their early-arriving brethren survived the end of winter, however, all of the prime nesting spots will be taken already. The late migrants are left to search for less desirable spots or try to fight for the good ones already taken.
It’s a roll of the dice sometimes in the natural world.
Thankfully for red-winged blackbirds, there are plenty of potential nesting spots available, thanks to their wide range. They nest throughout all of New England - I’ve seen them from Long Island Sound to the Canadian border. Their northward range extends well into Canada.
Now, if we would stop filling in all the wetlands for development, they’d have even more options. (Had to get that off my chest.)
It’s during this time that red-winged blackbirds are seen at backyard feeders most often. I wouldn’t consider red-winged blackbirds to be feeder birds, but I’m sure many of you out there would disagree. I hardly ever get red-winged blackbirds at my feeders, but I know people who get them frequently.
They would probably be better off eating at more backyard feeders. Red-winged blackbirds eat both seeds and insects. When they get their seeds from a farm, they run the risk of that seed being poisoned to keep massive flocks from wiping out crops.
Yet another man-made obstacle to make an already arduous migration journey even more difficult.