With patches of dirty ice packed snow scattered about much of the New York metropolitan landscape, and talk of more snow to come in the weather forecast, it’s hard to take the chatter of an early spring too seriously. Sure, days are getting longer, high temperatures have been above normal for over a week (as I write this article the high temperature yesterday was a balmy 58 degrees) and even our local celebrity groundhog, Staten Island Chuck has predicted an early spring.
It seems like everyone is looking forward to the arrival of another spring season around New York Harbor, even red-winged blackbirds. Male red-winged blackbirds are hard to overlook among the dull and dim winter landscape. They’re glossy black with bright red-and-yellow feathers on both wings.
Yesterday, I spotted my first red-winged blackbird of the year. It was a solitary male showing off his bright red and yellow patch of feathers in a large tidal wetland area of Sandy Hook Bay, located downstream from New York City
I watched for a while as I saw him stretch out his neck, open his pointed bill and pour forth a loud nasally, gurgling “conk-a-reeeee!” melody. Not the prettiest sound in the world, but it’s a male’s typical territorial song, a loud sound that draws the attention of other birds. When the male redwing’s song is accompanied by displays of his red epaulets or ornamental winged feathers, it means he is ready to defend his breeding territory from other eager males.
This anxious bird was ready to start another breeding season. One problem, the poor bird was all by himself. Not a single other red-winged blackbird could be seen or heard.
Does this bird know something we do not? Is winter soon to be finished or was this little bird really excited to get the best breeding territory around the harbor. Early birds usually get a prime breeding territory among the reeds and cattails. Maybe the bird was just little confused.
Normally, when you see large flocks of male red-winged blackbirds, sometimes into the thousands, regardless of the depth of snow or icy temperatures, it means Old Man Winter is nearly ready to fade away. The brassy territorial sounds of “conk-a-reee,” proclaimed by male redwings can only mean one thing: winter is nearly over and spring is imminent. But what does it mean when you see just one redwing?
According to Richard Dolbeer in his 1978 paper about the movement and migration patterns of red-winged blackbirds, many of the birds that nest during the summer around New York Harbor migrate down to Chesapeake Bay for the winter, with some possibly travelling as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Flocks are always segregated: boys travel with the boys and girls travel with girls. Among the boys, there are no conflicts or contests for space or food. That only happens when the hormones begin their annual surge in late winter or early spring, but by then the males are moving northward and flocks are dispersing among wetland grasses.
Female red-winged blackbirds usually arrive later in the spring season and are seldom seen or heard. Their streaked, sparrow-like plumage blends in perfectly with the tall stalks of cattails and reeds. It is here where the females will largely stay out of sight to build a nest, lay eggs, and raise young. Females will get almost no help from males in raising the kids. The guys are too busy defending territory and intimidating predators.
Although red-winged blackbirds frequently do not draw much public attention, it’s a tough and adaptable species, perfectly tailored to deal with our stressful urban-suburban environment. It’s a hardwearing bundle of black, red and yellow feathers.
No matter what, at least one little red-winged blackbird has returned to New York Harbor ready to urge a female to make his territory home for another breeding season. Soon there will be more redwings and spring will soon arrive. It’s all just a waiting game now.