The Great Outdoors


When did red-winged blackbirds become feeder birds? There were seven of them, all males, scoffing up seeds at my bird feeder this morning. There were more red-wings than any other bird. This didn’t just start this year. Red-winged blackbirds, mostly males, have crowded my feeder from early spring into summer for several years. But that wasn’t always the case. A few years ago, I don’t know how many years because I didn’t make note of it, but a few years ago red-wings didn’t come to my feeder. Nor to anybody else’s that I knew of.

Another thing about red-winged blackbirds, when did they become so widespread? I see them perched on power lines and fence posts and weed stalks along every country road.

Books about birds published more than fifty years ago describe red-winged blackbirds as birds of cattail marshes during spring, their nesting season. Arthur A. Allen of Cornell University studied red-winged blackbirds and cattail marshes in the early 1900s and wrote of his studies for his doctoral dissertation. In his dissertation he stated, “Red-winged blackbirds are almost exclusively birds of cattail marshes when nesting.”

Red-wings still nest in cattails. There are several nests in the cattails of the marsh on our property. I haven’t gone wading and found the nests but I’m sure there are nests out there from the males displaying and announcing their territories, the females flying about in the cattails.

Red-wings are tolerant, adaptable birds. Drain the wetlands where they nest and they nest in the fields created by the draining. If there are weeds or grass or hay tall enough for them to hide their nests they will likely nest there. I’ve found red-wing nests in tall grass and weeds along road right-of-ways.

With their adaptability regarding nesting, it’s surprising that they didn’t start raiding bird feeders many years ago. But now that they are, are the male red-wings visiting my feeder the same birds that have territories and nests out in our marsh and pasture? I think not. Those birds stay in their chosen territories and drive other male red-wings away, though they welcome other females.

The red-wings coming to my feeder, I believe, are birds that don’t have territories and nests. Or mates for that matter. Quite likely, again in my opinion, they are young birds, one-year olds. They look like adults but they’re not yet fully mature, not yet aggressive enough to claim a territory and keep other males out. They’re drifters. They stay where they are not chased by two-year old or older males and where the food is plentiful and easy to get.

That’s conjecture on my part, pure guesswork. But that’s part of the fun of watching birds, trying to understand why birds act as they do. In the fall and winter when red-wings are in flocks there are often thousands, hundreds of thousands, even more in those flocks. I’ve been a red-wing counter, one of several persons positioned around a major red-wing night-time roost, each of us counting, or estimating the number of red-wings flying in over our assigned section of boundary. When the last red-wings had gone to roost and we combined our numbers our total was often in the millions. And those were only males. Female red-wings roost in different places than males.

Thinking about those numbers, what if a dozen or so red-wings do raid my feeder?

Neil A. Case

Neil A. Case

I have always liked the outdoors and birds and am a conservationist and an environmentalist. I don't write specifically about conservation but mix my opinion in with stories about a bird, a mammal, a plant or other outdoor subject. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer