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.