The return of the red-winged blackbird is a sure sign of spring. Their loud trills are a common sound in marshy habitats. The brightly winged male birds return to their breeding grounds before the females to stake out and defend their territory. Red-winged blackbirds are polygynous, meaning that the males mate with more than one female. The most successful, high ranking males can defend a territory that is large enough to support multiple nests.
Male red-winged blackbirds perch up high, spread their tails, and flash bright red patches on their wings, called epaulets, to stake their territory and attract female red-winged blackbirds. While the male birds can have many mates, it is still the female birds that do the choosing. They tend to choose the male birds with the glossiest black feathers and brightest epaulets.
Male birds that are not as confident, are outside of their own territory, or are feeding together tend to hide their bright red feathers, leaving only a small strip of yellow to be seen. The male bird pictured below is likely young. His feathers are still edged with the juvenile brown color, yet to develop that full black gloss. He might have a tough go this year competing with the older, more established males.
The next time you’re out, listen for the red-winged blackbirds distinctive call and watch for the bright red displays. You can be sure spring has arrived.