Friday, February 27, 2009
Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Here is the fifth way. “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” By this time in February most of us are ready for any way of looking at a blackbird or any sign of the approaching spring, and I’m not thinking of mud. I’m thinking of the Red-winged Blackbird – and it’s back – flying circles around Phil, the unreliable groundhog.
Name: The Red-winged Blackbird has the scientific name of Agelaius phoeniceus where Agelaios is from the Greek for “flocking” and refers to the fact that, outside of breeding season, these birds congregate in very large flocks. Phoeniceus is from the Latin for the deep red color introduced into Greece by the Phoenicians and refers to the red shoulder patches on the males.
Where seen and heard: Tom and D’Ann Brownrigg saw six Red-winged Blackbirds on Estabrook Road last Saturday, February 21, and also heard some on the Carlisle side of Acton on February 22. The males return before the females and start claiming and defending territory. It’s possible the females have not arrived yet but you will soon be able to see them in cattail swamps or almost any wet marshy places where there is emergent vegetation. The Cranberry Bog is a good place to watch the males doing their territorial displays. Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most populous birds in North America and are found in every state.
Distinguishing characteristics: The male is the easy one to identify. He is our only blackbird with red patches on the shoulder. The red patch has a lower edging of yellow. You are most likely to notice the red patch when the bird is half spreading his wings and fluffing up his shoulder feathers as he defends his territory, or when he is flying. The female is not black at all. She is brown and stripey and smaller than the male. She looks a bit like a large sparrow.
Mating game: Female Red-winged Blackbirds are more interested in good habitats for nesting than in the flashiness of the males. The display the male puts on is for the purpose of keeping rival males out of the territory. Experiments in which the red shoulder patches were blackened showed that males with suitable real estate could still attract females. Unlike most bird species, which are monogamous, the Red-winged Blackbird is polygynous – it will mate with more than one female in a single breeding season and has been known to mate with as many as 15. He doesn’t love’em and leave ‘em. He is vigorous in attacking predators or possible predators. He is unafraid of even large creatures like humans and horses who risk being hit in the head by a diligent defensive Red-wing bomber if they get too close to a nest.
Nests: The nest is an open cup made of grass and leaves and wedged between multiple stems of tallish plants often growing in water. It is filled with mud and then lined with fine grass. In other years I have seen them in the reeds by the Maple Street bridge. Not wanting a hole in my head, I use binoculars to get close.
Facing facts: We may be ready for spring but the snow is still here and so to keep a hold on reality I’d like to finish with Wallace Stevens’ thirteenth way of looking at a blackbird. “It was evening all afternoon./ It was snowing / And it was going to snow./ The blackbird sat / In the cedar limbs.”
Sources: The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley; Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.birds.cornell.edu (search for red-wing); Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens; Seattle Audubon Society at www.birdweb.org.
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