Red-winged blackbirds aren’t very big. They’re smaller than robins, about 8” head to tail. But they’re easily spotted, at least the males: jet black feathers with bright red and yellow shoulders that are even more visible when they’re flying.
Here in the central mountains of Idaho, they’re one of the first migrating song birds to return, early harbingers of spring’s arrival.
The males migrate first to establish nesting territory before the females join them. The females build cup nests in shrubs, often near cattails where there’s a marsh or shallow water. That perfectly describes the terrain alongside the valley road the boys and I walk regularly.
Once the females arrive, the males sing from the tops of the cattails, fence posts and shrubs, showing off their red-with-yellow wing bars (epaulets). They work it. Their songs are loud and constant, because hey, the females get to choose their mate. The females are brown with streaks in their feathers, and rather plain. They don’t need to be showy braggarts because the choice is theirs.
Once mated, a pair will have two or three broods per year, with three or four eggs each time. The females sit on the eggs for 10-12 days, then both help feed the chicks until they fledge after 11-14 days.
Having so many broods means “nesting season” for red-winged blackbirds is rather long. And that must wear the boys out, in more ways than one.
You see, male red-winged blackbirds turn aggressive during nesting season. They have a strong instinct to protect their nests. They worked hard for their mate, so they’re going to work even harder to protect her and their offspring. They don’t care how large the invading foe might be; they’ll take it on if it comes too close to their nest. Red-tailed hawks, magpies, ospreys, eagles, crows, ravens, cats, dogs. Even people.
The real-life version of Angry Birds.
When I lived in the Seattle area, I knew to be wary of crows and owls protecting nests or fledglings. They would swoop up silently behind you and hit you on the back of the head with their talons, their way of saying, “Stay away!” When I was a student at the University of Washington I had to walk through a treed area where crow attacks were common. I learned to wear a hat in the spring. Every year on a Seattle-area trail running group I follow on Facebook there are threads warning of owl attacks on various trails.
This afternoon, while walking with the boys along our favored valley road mid-afternoon, I noticed red-winged blackbirds – always the males – chasing all sorts of other birds, with lots of vocalization to back up their aggression. First, I saw one chase a magpie, a much larger bird. Then another chased a robin. Paying closer attention, I noticed the red-wings chasing any and all birds away from the shrubs and cattails lining the road. And finally, I watched one chase a raven, a bird three times its size, the red-wing showing real determination and grit. Each time, the red-wing flew behind the offending bird, keeping pace during the chase despite avoidance-aerobatic tactics by the chased bird.
It must be exhausting for the male red-winged blackbirds, and annoying for all the other birds who are simply going about their usual mating and food-seeking routines.
Since moving to Idaho, I haven’t worried about birds attacking me.
I may have to rethink that.
When it comes to red-winged blackbirds attacking humans, environmental-science consultant Beth Kosson has called them “nature’s assholes,” even once comparing them to a bickering New Jersey couple.
“The female will sit there on the nest and then the male tries to muscle out the humans — the whole time the female is watching, egging on her man. ‘Get ’em, baby. Get ’em good,'” Kosson said. “Bunch of assholes they are.”
After what I observed on a recent walk, I think her assessment is spot on.
I’m surprised the boys and I weren’t strafed and chased as we made our way down and back the road, favored red-winged blackbird territory on both sides, males flying all around us. Maybe they’re used to us and don’t consider us a threat? At times, though, I did feel like I was getting the evil eye from some of the males perched atop fence posts, watching us walk by. Careful there, missy; one step off the road and you’ll see what we’re made of.
Flashbacks to watching Hitchcock’s The Birds as a kid. The stuff of nightmares.
I’m grateful they don’t hang out in the forest, where the boys and I run and would be tempting moving targets.
Watch your back if you’ve got nesting red-winged blackbirds in your neighborhood.
Feature image: male red-winged blackbird courtship display; Patrick Myers, National Park Service.