Red-winged Blackbirds - Agelaius phoeniceus

July 28, 2008


I will admit, these are not my favorite birds. The male of this species breeding season territoriality encourages it to dive bomb anything it sees as a threat to its harem of up to 15 females; including Homo sapiens. A museum employee recently strolled into the zoology prep lab complaining about a Red-winged that had set up shop along a museum campus sidewalk, and was aggressively swooping innocent pedestrians, of which she was one. She half jokingly suggested that it might make things better if she attached a Red-winged study specimen to her head. If it were a male specimen, that would probably make things worse!

Faulty deterrents aside, I was sympathetic to her irritation. Last year, whilst staying at a friends farm, I stepped out for an early morning jog along one of the many winding, rural roads. I watched my shadow, and to my dismay, about every 50 feet watched another small, bird-shaped shadow swoop in over my head. Male Red-wings had stationed themselves quite evenly along my route, and sat perched on electrical lines waiting for any intruder (me) to dare enter their territory. They cawed and flashed their bright red wing epaulets in warning before diving within range of my noggin. I can't blame them for being protective of what they perceive to have rightfully claimed, but it's hard not to take it personally. Geez.

So, when I was commissioned to do a painting of one of these suckers, I hesitated at first. How can I paint my sworn avian enemy?! I then realized that in a two-dimensional state, there was no threat of it going after anyone. Red-winged blackbirds belong to the family Icterids that also include (until DNA evidence proves otherwise) grackles, meadowlarks, bobolinks, orioles, and cowbirds. A highly polygamous species that can be found throughout North America, it exhibits a high sexual dimorphism with the adult males being a glossy black with bright red and yellow wing epaulets, and females being brown and streaked. Kamikaze antics notwithstanding, it's a handsome species worthy of our respect.

5 comments:

  1. heh - looks like you gave him an evil gleam in his eye. These guys are actually one of my favorite birds simply because they're the first bird back in the spring. When I hear them calling in the early spring I know that winter's back has (mostly) been broken.

    Ya wanna try getting divebombed? Work in a tern colony. Those suckers don't just dive within range of your noggin', they go right for the noggin' and it hurts! Solution: wear a hat with a foot-long stick taped to it. They (usually) go after the stick instead of your head. Oh - and don't forget to wear a jacket that you don't mind getting "white-washed" ;)

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  2. Diana:

    Red-winged blackbirds have been one of the big successes of our backyard bird feeding program. We never had them before we started bird feeding. Now we have them from spring through fall. I'm not sure where they nest, but we see males, females, and then juveniles so it can't be too far away.

    The males are very protective of their nest locations, as you observe, but their antics are more of an annoyance than anything else. The don't a actually strike passersby. At least, I have never experienced that.

    The females are as interesting to watch in their own way as the males. They are so much smaller, looking really like overgrown sparrows. Juveniles look like the females, except the male juvenile birds are much larger and easy to distinguish.

    The males rarely display much of their red epaulets. Usually the yellow fringe is more prominent. We've noticed that the red is only really displayed when one male is attempting to intimidate or chase off another mature male. I haven't noticed if this is also the case when they buzz passersby, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were so.

    I recently added a lengthy post to my blog about warts on hackberry tree leaves, in answer to a question you posed a few months back. If you aren't familiar with Arthur Plotnik's The Urban Tree Guide, you should check it out from the library or something. It's wonderful. Plotnik is a Chicago resident, and his wife, who illustrated the book, Mary Phelan(?), is a Chicago artist and teacher who you may have come across at some point in your art education. Anyway, her illustrations are a fine enhancement to what is already an excellent book.

    Fiske

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  3. on a bike tour of canada jay took in high school, he was nipped in the head by a red-wing while riding along; drew blood. very compelling comments you two. perhaps j should have attached a foot long stick to his cycling helmet!

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  4. Wow, I'm feeling all guilty for liking these birds now. I've always loved their gurgling little song. I've never seen them behave this way...maybe ours are on sedatives around here...or maybe they just seem less dangerous than the ARMY of hummingbirds.

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  5. aw, i shouldn't be such a hater! i don't really think they're bad, i swear. they are just a bit too overzealous sometimes when it comes to my skull.

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