For just a moment I am going to be another person who is whining about this long hard winter. I know it seems as though spring may never come, but I think we have all seen and heard some signs. One sign imparticular inevitably carry spring on their wings as an unbroken promise year after year that life will come again to this frozen prairie landscape. While the snow keeps falling here in the Midwest, I have certainly had my spirits lifted by the sights and sounds of birds returning.
For example, a few weeks ago it snowed again. Yeah I know, it’s always snowing again. I so badly wanted to be crabby about it. How many times is spring going to be yanked out from under us? But the snow was falling in big fat flakes straight out of the sky. We don’t get vertical precipitation too often here on the prairie, so I just stood there in the moment looking and listening to the snow fall. Then, out of character for the thick blanket of white all around me, a red-winged black bird would occasionally call. By that time these fellas have been back for a while but what my eyes where seeing did not line-up with the sounds I was hearing. It was an utter contradiction, a jolt to my dormant spring energy that has been waiting to burst out from under the crust of winter. So below is an ode, a thank you of sorts, to the red-winged black bird. I know it isn’t a species that bird nerds get all excited about, but many of us are just wannabe bird nerds.
I’m pretty sure the red-winged blackbird was one of the very first native species of grassland song birds I learned about in the field and not from my fourth-grade Nebraska chapter in social studies. I often see the males protecting their territory and the females nesting where water will collect on the landscape, in or near ditches or in wetlands.
These birds make their nests higher in the structure of grasses and forbs compared to say, a meadowlark that make their nest directly on the ground. The female red-wing blackbirds will grab some nesting material, dried grasses most often, and weave anchors for the nest on the gathered bunches of tall grasses and flowering plant. Once secure the nest itself is weaved with plant material and molded with mud into a cup shape that is then lined by softer, finer grasses. The females will lay two to four eggs that are the light blue of robin eggs but also smeared with brown wriggly misshapen lines. Females can potentially have two broods in a nesting season.
The male red-winged blackbirds are highly territorial. I’ve been dive bombed while checking nests for survival rates on my first job right out of college. Males can also have up to 15 females that are nesting in their territory. The bright red markings on the wings are flashed to attract a mate or to show another male who is in charge.
Although the population of red-winged blackbirds have decreased over the last 40 years, they are still one of the most abundant and recognizable of those to return in the spring. The male mating call, konk-a-reeee, listen here, is a sound of home and a promise of the new life spring will bring.