If you have been the least bit attentive to bird activity or song these days, no doubt you have noted the return of red-winged blackbirds to the Barrington area. My mother-in-law does not relish their homecoming – she decries them monopolizing her bird feeders – but I find their re-appearing a solid and welcome indication of spring. Their ringing Oka-reeeeee! is happy music after months of bird silence.
The male red-wings already are staking out nest territories in and near wetlands, in anticipation of the females who will arrive later. At the same time, large bands of bachelor blackbirds lift and settle and squawk noisily in open fields. Where I live at the edge of a Cook County forest preserve, I can watch clouds of red-winged blackbirds swarm on and above the newly burned prairie restoration site, then lift to nearby perches where they blacken the trees.
Both visually and aurally, the male red-winged blackbird is easy to identify. Its name is descriptive: it is indeed a black bird with red wings or, more specifically, red epaulets – the “shoulder” part of birds’ wings. The crimson feathers are underlined by a narrow row of yellow feathers. According to researchers, the size and brilliance of the epaulets determine the male’s prospects of attracting a mate. If you take the time to stand and watch a male red-winged blackbird during mating season, you will be treated to quite a show as he puffs up his breast and wing feathers, bows, and makes the scarlet epaulets conspicuous in his efforts to allure nearby females.
The female red-wing has an entirely different appearance. Many beginning birders mistake her for a large sparrow. While the same shape and nearly the same size as the male, she wears brown and cream feathers arranged in a streaky pattern.
Red-winged blackbirds, like all in the large blackbird family, have longish, sharp bills that enable them, among other things, to weave a basket-like nest. Typically, they attach their nest to cattail stalks in freshwater marshes but they will just as readily use small shrubs or trees. While the red-winged blackbird’s nest is not as finely composed as that of its cousin, the Baltimore oriole, it is nonetheless a marvel of avian architecture. The female mostly attends to nest-building and incubation, while the male is a fierce protector of nest and young, often attacking other birds, animals, and even humans who venture too close.
Red-winged blackbirds will be with us in the Barrington area from now until late fall. They are not difficult to find but your chances increase at local wetlands, such as those at Flint Creek Savanna or Cuba Marsh or Ron Beese Park south of Bakers Lake. While it is a common bird, the species is well worth watching and listening to. Its jubilant Oka-reeeee! captures the joy we all feel at the onset of spring after a long, cold winter.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
If you would like to learn more about the Birds of Barrington, Citizens for Conservation just announced Wendy Paulson’s schedule of eleven upcoming Spring Bird Walks & Hikes, from April through June. (CLICK HERE for the full schedule of Wendy’s upcoming hikes.) These walks will take place at locations throughout the Barrington area.