Red Winged Blackbird
The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a passerine bird of the family Icteridae found in most of North and much of Central America. It breeds from Alaska and Newfoundland south to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and Guatemala, with isolated populations in western El Salvador, northwestern Honduras, and northwestern Costa Rica.
It may winter as far north as Pennsylvania and British Columbia, but northern populations are generally migratory, moving south to Mexico and the southern United States. Claims have been made that it is the most abundant and best studied living bird in North America. The Red-winged Blackbird is sexually dimorphic; the male is all black with a red shoulder and yellow wing bar, while the female is a nondescript dark brown. Seeds and insects make up the bulk of the Red-winged Blackbird’s diet.
There are a number of subspecies, some of doubtful status, which are mostly quite similar in appearance, but the ‘Bicolored Blackbird’ A. p. gubernator of California and central Mexico is distinctive. The male lacks the yellow wing patch of the nominate race, and the female is much darker than the female nominate. The taxonomy of this form is little understood, with the relationships between the two isolated Bicolored populations, and between these and Red-winged still unclear. Despite the similar names, the Red-winged Blackbird is in a different family from the European Redwing and the Old World Common Blackbird, which are thrushes (Turdidae).
The common name for the Red-winged Blackbird is taken from the mainly black adult male’s distinctive red shoulder patches, or “epaulets”, which are visible when the bird is flying or displaying. At rest, the male also shows a pale yellow wingbar. The female is blackish-brown and paler below.
Young birds resemble the female, but are paler below and have buff feather fringes. Both sexes have a sharply pointed bill. The tail is of medium length and is rounded. The eyes, bill, and feet are all black.
The calls of the Red-winged Blackbird are a throaty check and a high slurred whistle, terrr-eeee. The male’s song, accompanied by a display of his red shoulder patches, is a scratchy oak-a-lee, except that in many western birds, including Bicolored Blackbirds. The female also sings, typically a scolding chatter chit chit chit chit chit chit cheer teer teer teerr.
The range of the Red-winged Blackbird stretches from southern Alaska to the Yucatan peninsula in the south, and from the western coast of California and Canada to the east coast of the continent. Red-winged Blackbirds in the northern reaches of the range are migratory, spending winters in the southern United States and Central America. Migration begins in September or October, but occasionally as early as August. In western and middle America, populations are generally non-migratory.
The Red-winged Blackbird inhabits open grassy areas. It generally prefers wetlands, and inhabits both freshwater and saltwater marshes, particularly if cattail is present. It is also found in dry upland areas, where it inhabits meadows, prairies, and old fields.