Wearing his heart on his sleeve: Interview with a Red-winged Blackbird

I'm not just a pair of  red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

I’m not just a pair of red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

If you’ve ever gone near a river in the summer, you’re probably well acquainted with the call of the red-winged blackbird. As a prairie girl who grew up in Calgary seeing very few of these showy birds, I love hearing them whenever I walk along a Ottawa waterway.

However, just like my friend the robin, my knowledge of red-winged blackbirds is limited to:

1) Males have red shoulders
2) Females are brown and less showy than the males
3) Males will aggressively chase other birds and animals out of their territory

The last time I interviewed a bird I talked to a female robin, so to give a fair chance to both sexes I asked a male redwing about being an urban blackbird.

A: I’ve heard you’re one of the most common birds in North America. How does this make you feel?

B: Sweetheart, just because we’re common doesn’t mean we aren’t special. It takes a special bird to be successful in both Alaska and Cuba. Anyways, there is a price to being one of the most abundant birds on the continent.

A: A price? What do you mean?

B: Because there are so many of us we aren’t protected by endangered species laws. It also means that humans don’t feel so bad when they kill us. The majority of blackbird deaths are caused by humans.

A: Why would humans want kill you? You’re so pretty and harmless.

B: You would think so, but in Canada you only see us during the spring and summer when we’re having babies. The other half of the year we go south to relax and refuel. We hang out in huge swarms, sometimes even welcoming other species into our group. We fly around searching for food, and where do we find the most food? In fields of rice, corn and sunflower seeds.

A: Oh. I imagine the farmers who own these fields aren’t happy to see you?

B: You’re right on the money, doll. We can eat 1-2% of a farmer’s crop. For sunflowers, it can be up to 25%. But what can we do? A bird’s got to eat, and there’s all this lovely food sitting there!

A: Are seeds the only thing you eat?

B: No, we have a balanced diet of fruit, insects, spiders and snails. In fact, we often help farmers by eating the insect pests off their crops.

A: What do farmers do when they find you in their field?

B: Some try to chase us away with air canons, loud music, recordings of our alarm calls, and even with remote-controlled airplanes! Others will remove the cattails and bulrushes from the edges of their fields, because those are our favorite spots to hang out and removing them makes us less likely to visit.

A: But some farmers kill you?

B: Yes. Some shoot us or scatter poisoned seeds. The worst is when they spray their crops with surfactants. When our feathers touch these chemicals they can’t keep us warm or dry anymore, and we die from exposure. I’ve seen a few of my friends go this way. It’s not a pretty sight.

A: That’s awful, but I can understand why farmers would want to protect their livelihood. They need to feed their families too.

B: I agree, but obviously I prefer non-lethal methods.

A: Okay, on to something more cheerful! Tell me what happens when you come back to Canada in the spring.

B: It’s actually quite stressful. You have to understand that during the breeding season it’s all about territory. A female doesn’t care about how beautiful you look or how sweetly you swing. All she cares about is finding a safe place where she can hide her nest and raise her chicks. If she likes your territory, she stays. Therefore, the males with the best territories get the best females.

A: Sounds like cut-throat competition! What does an ideal territory look like?

B: Females really like cattails, marshes, and wet shrub lands. Because you humans keep draining wetlands, these ideal places are getting harder to find. We often settle for urban parks and river banks.

A: All of those habitats include water. Why do females like water so much?

B: You have to understand that many animals like eating our eggs and baby birds. I’ve had to chase many raccoons and crows away from my nests, and I don’t always get there in time. If a female builds her grass nest above the water, it’s harder for predators to get at it. So water in the habitat means a greater chance that our babies will survive.

A: Isn’t that dangerous, having babies above the water like that? What if they fell in?

B: Our chicks can swim short distances, so falling out of the nest isn’t a problem.

A: Wow! Can you still swim?

B: No, I lost the ability when I become an adult.

A: Let’s talk about becoming an adult. When did that happen for you?

B: It takes a long time! I was three years old when I finally got my red epaulets. Before that I was a fairly dull teenaged bird with little chance of winning a territory from the older males. I just hung around with my bachelor friends all summer, dreaming of the day when I would have a harem of my own!

A: Excuse me, did you say a harem?

B: Yes ma ’me! We can have 5 to 15 females nesting on our territory at once. We’re definitely not the mate-for-life type.

Protecting that many nests takes a lot of work, I’ll tell you! But when you see those little faces blinking at the sky for the first time, it’s all worth it! Even when the little faces have a strong resemblance to your ugly neighbor.

A: What? Are you implying that your females cheat on you?

B: It’s pretty common knowledge that 25- 50% of the chicks I raise are not my own. Women are pretty good at getting what they want. Like I said, they’re with me for my territory, not necessarily for my genes.

A: That was awkward. Okay, one last question. What’s the deal with your red shoulders? Are they just there to look pretty?

B: How dare you! My red epaulets are state-of-the art signalling devices that I use to defend my territory and my honour. I can grow or shrink them depending on the occasion. You can see this very clearly in this video by The Music of Nature:

For example, if my male neighbor enters my territory, I’ll hunch my shoulders and show as much red as I can, to show him how beautiful I am and that he shouldn’t mess with me. I also show my shoulders when I’m wooing my ladies. However, if I’m feeding peacefully with the boys I will hide my red shoulders so no fights break out.

A: Wow, that’s very interesting. Well, thanks for taking time to talk to me.

B: It was my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a territory and a harem to defend.



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