The Red-Wing Blackbird
The wild red-wing black-
bird croaks frog-
like though more shrill
as the beads of
his head blaze over the
swamp and the odors of the swamp
vodka to his nostrils
I notice spring birds before spring buds … and just the other day, the Red-winged Blackbirds were vocalizing their intent over a Kirkland swamp. In my periphery I saw the crimson flashes of male birds flitting between reeds, and then females clinging to cattail puffs.
As much as I enjoy their displays and the trill of the male’s call — the one people identify as the sound “oka-reee” — I didn’t realize that the Red-winged males sometimes have harems as large as fifteen ladies or more. They are are polygynous: single red-and-black males seeking harems.
The males stake out their turf and call in the females with their flourishes. Then, once their multiple partners are settled in their nests, the female blackbirds do the bulk of the feeding and raising of the young. This book excerpt summarizes the situation in the marsh:
During the breeding season, male redwings are territorial, each defending a portion of marsh or, in some regions, upland. Redwings also defend their territories against Yellow-headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), but they are often displaced from better quality areas by the larger yellow heads …. Redwings are strongly polygynous throughout their range. Harems, which average three to five females but may range up to fifteen or more, tend to be larger on the more productive marshes of western North America than elsewhere ….Male rewings do not participate in nest building or incubation, and, in our study area, most of them do not feed nestlings …. Feeding of nestlings is more prevalent among older males throughout the range of the species and in eastern than in western North America …. Apparently, no strong bonds are formed between males and females. Even during the breeding season, mated individuals move around relatively independently of each [other] — both in daily activities and between breeding efforts.”
~ Red-winged Blackbirds: Decision-making and Reproductive Success by Les D. Beletsky and Gordon H. Orians (p.5)
I see Red-winged Blackbirds as often as just about any other bird, but one of my favorite and most poignant experiences was watching a male Red-winged Blackbird working nonstop to feed his two fledglings in the reeds, after — it was reported — the mother blackbird hadn’t shown up for days. She was presumed gone.
This scene took place adjacent to a public boardwalk in a nature sanctuary, and it was other local photographers who filled me in on the story. It was a sad recognition of the harsh side of wild life, accompanied by this tale of resilience, where dad did everything he could to make sure life went on.
[These shots were taken with a long lens, from a public boardwalk where the birds are quite habituated to human foot traffic and did not seem visibly disturbed by photographers.]
Dad blackbird in a moment of rest between feedings: