Every year about this time, people start getting itchy for spring. With the weather warming up, they look for signs that winter’s winding down: a swollen leaf bud, a green sprout, a red, red robin bob, bob bobbin’ along.
Bur robins aren’t the sure bet we once thought them to be.
If you’d like to find a species that is a more reliable indicator, one that’s easy to find and even easier to recognize, look no further than the red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus.
Although a small number overwinter in our area, the arrival of legions of determined males intent on establishing territories is a sure sign that spring is in the air.
That the males arrive at least two weeks before the females is significant. For them, it means they can size up their competition and stake their claims before the females return. For me, it means I can make use of some of the ridiculous trivia I have rolling around my brain.
Long-time readers may recall that I tend to associate redwings with the Thin Lizzy song, “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The lyrics describe the actions of a gang of young toughs that have returned, presumably after a prolonged absence:
“Guess who just got back today
Them wild-eyed boys that had been away
Haven’t changed, haven’t much to say
But man, I still think them cats are crazy”
Does that not describe male redwings to a T?
It’s true, to our human ears, it doesn’t sound like they have much to say, and their antics sure seem crazy. But, guess what? Every move they make, every claim they stake (um, yeah, it seems some Police lyrics apply here too) are all part of an annual cycle that will soon be focused on reproduction.
What they lack in linguistic diversity, male redwings certainly make up for in iteration.
Clinging to prominent perches — anything from cattail stems to signposts —they repeatedly belt out their territorial “O-ka-ree!” (or, as I like to think of it, “Look-at-mee!”) and flash their namesake red patches in efforts to declare territory and keep out intruders.
Wild-eyed? Yes. But also with good reason. These boys are preparing for not just one mate, but also several. Redwings are polygynous, meaning one male will breed with several females. He’ll soon have his hands full with anywhere from two to four or more (the record is something like 15) females to watch over.
The Thin Lizzy song goes on to state that “It won’t be long ’til summer comes, now that the boys are here again.” Sure thing, in just a few short months things will really start heating up. With the multiple mates come multiple eggs, then nestlings, then fledglings…
And that’s when the sensationalism will begin.
Each year, in mid to late June, people start getting “attacked” by male redwings. All these courageous chaps are trying to do is defend their ladies, their nests, and their offspring, which are tucked away under the cover of cattails, dense hedges or other similarly impenetrable foliage.
But inevitably someone will draw a parallel between a defensive redwing and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and suddenly the redwings’ good name is mud.
Granted, it can be a little disconcerting to have a dark missile of black and red feathers come hurtling toward you, seemingly from out of nowhere. But given that the birds weigh all of only 2 ounces – half a stick of butter – the attacks rarely cause harm. And the behavior lasts only until the young leave the nest – a period of maybe three weeks.
Still, it’s just dramatic enough to get a few inches of column space in newspapers, or 30 seconds of TV news time, every year.
(Fun fact: Male redwings will not fly toward eyes. They want to discourage potential threats, not actually get hurt themselves–which is what would happen if they met a predator head on. If you want to avoid a thwack, all you have to do is stay one step ahead of a Papa Redwing. Listen for his call, then find where he’s perched and stare him down.)
Every summer, it seems, I’ll get a call from someone wanting to know whether redwings are becoming more aggressive. I haven’t been able to find any research proving that was the case, but I did see references to the fact that urban and suburban male redwings attack more frequently than their rural counterparts. Does that mean they’re more aggressive? Probably not. They’ve just got more intruders – more of us – to worry about.
Picture yourself in your car, first sitting in rush hour traffic, then again driving down a peaceful country lane. In which scenario are you more likely to have your space encroached on? Where might you be more likely to honk your horn or gesture emphatically? It’s the same for male redwings.
Female red-winged blackbirds, however, are another story. For one thing, they don’t have red on their wings. For another, they aren’t even black. Streaky brown, with a hint of yellow, the red-winged gals look somewhat like giant sparrows and are all about laying low and blending in.
They show up a couple of weeks after the males, and soon busy themselves with nest building, egg laying and chick rearing. They’ll defend their nest from nearby threats, but leave the heavy-duty behavior to their mates.
Next time you’re near water or a wetland, and you hear the call of a proud male redwing, take a cue from Thin Lizzy and “Spread the word around. The boys are back in town.”
It really won’t be long ‘til summer comes, once the boys are here again.
Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or email@example.com
— Sure sign of spring as Red Winged Blackbirds return to town —