Thought I heard…

Red-winged blackbirds: the heralds of spring.

Long ago, I was sleeping in on a Saturday, half-listening to CBC radio when a folk song came on, “Thought I heard a red-winged blackbird / red-winged blackbird on my road.” This was repeated twice in the refrain. As the singer went on to sing a verse, then the same refrain, again and again, soon all I could think was “Thought I heard a red-winged blackbird / red-winged blackbird on my road.” Rather boring, I thought.

Birds of Spring

For many people, the return of the first robin is a sure sign of spring. For me, not so much. We have a few robins that spend the winter in towns like Smithers, B.C., feeding on mountain ash berries, frost-softened ornamental crab apples, and other fruits. So I can usually find one robin or more in town, even in temperatures well below zero.
But a red-winged blackbird: that’s another story. When, after a cold March night, a bright sun appears and I see a black bird in the lilacs and hear “kong-ka-ree-e-e,” I know that winter is licked.

Epaulette fashions

The males arrive first, and (in what I was taught was a very male-ish display) call loudly to announce their presence. Most are glossy black in the spring with bright shoulder patches (epaulettes) that flare to indicate dominance, identity, aggression or sex-appeal. The epaulettes aren’t always visible, but early in the spring when the local population is mostly composed of males, the display is startling: bright and awe-inspiring. (I should mention that really red-wings should be called “bright orange- and yellow-epauletted” blackbirds. But that’s harder to work into a song.)

Strutting one’s stuff doesn’t always work. Although males may practice polygamy, often they are cuckolded by others males who sneak in while the boss-male is busy with another part of his territory. Studies like those by the American Bird Conservancy show that “females frequently mate with males other than the territory holder, and so they often lay clutches of unknown paternity.”

Nesting red-wings

Females usually make their nests near water, especially in stands of cattail. Adaptable females are increasingly nesting in urban trees and shrubs. Red-wings are very feisty in defending their nests from crows, hawks, other predatory birds and even humans. Several years ago, urban blackbirds made the news in places like Toronto and Grand Rapids where they swooped at and sometimes pecked at the heads of pedestrians who got too near their nests. (You can find videos on Youtube.)

When gathering in huge staging or wintering flocks, red-wings can cause significant crop damage to corn, sunflowers and emerging rice; in my region, they may also eat ripe barley.
These so-called problems aside, let me say that – if there is a real herald of spring – for me it is the “kong-ka-ree” of the red-winged blackbird. Here’s verse three of the folk song: “Safe as Moses in the rushes, / Builds his home on the river wide, / Every time I hear him
singing, / Makes me feel like Spring inside.”


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