The red-winged blackbird is an iconic symbol of spring. To teach you about the lives of these beautiful birds, let me tell you the story of a typical male of the species. To preserve the anonymity of my source, and to avoid risking a lawsuit, let’s just call this particular bird, oh, Carl.
Carl spent the winter in more southern latitudes with many other species of blackbirds. It is even possible that he headed down to the Caribbean, but eventually he got the itch to head north again. Traveling in large flocks, red-winged blackbirds migrate in a huge wave that reaches from one coast of the United States to the other. Carl arrived in New York several weeks ago and decided to stay. Other red-wings may have flown as far north as Newfoundland by now.
Upon his arrival, Carl started to set up a territory in the best habitat he could find. He was looking for an area that would be wet and support tall, thick vegetation that would be crawling with insects in the summer. Ponds, marshes, wet fields, and moist thickets were all possible choices.
Other males were just as determined to claim good territories and were willing to fight for them. In the world of red-winged blackbirds, fighting is done mostly through vocal and visual displays. The familiar “chonk-a-ree” song is designed to threaten other males while also impressing the ladies. The red-and-yellow shoulder patches are also designed to threaten other males.
The constant combat over territories is all in anticipation of the arrival of the females a couple of weeks later. Female red-wings don’t look much like the males. Their plumage is a study in browns, with a dark background decorated with lighter streaks. They are just as spunky, however, and will fight among themselves with great ferocity.
When the females arrive, Carl will put on energetic displays to show how healthy and robust he is. It’s only a matter of time until a female chooses Carl to be the father of her offspring, but once the choice has been made the most fascinating aspect of red-wing social life will begin to unfold. Filled with cheating and deception, it is better than any soap opera.
After Carl bonds with one female, he will set up a dummy territory nearby. From time to time he will slip off to defend the dummy territory and try to get another female to select him, but under the false pretense that he is unattached. If he is successful, Carl will mate with her as well.
As if that weren’t enough, he will then abandon her. He will stick close to his primary female, even helping provide food for his first nest of Carl Juniors, but the second family will largely be ignored. Instead, Carl may actually set up a third territory, and try to attract yet another female.
Carl may sound like a real scoundrel to anyone with strong family values, but before you judge him too harshly you need to know one additional bit of information. Although Carl is clever and deceptive, he may not be quite as smart as we give him credit for.
Who’s using who?
In fact, it is quite possible that each one of the females that selects him as a mate knows exactly what’s going on. Furthermore, it may actually be the female red-wings that will be using Carl, rather than the other way around.
Tune in next week for the stunning conclusion of our story, “As The Marsh Turns!” In an odd twist, you’ll learn that some female blackbirds are quite content to be “the other woman” . . . for the right man.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.