The red winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a bird belonging to the order Passeriformes and the family Icteridae. These passerine birds are found in most of North America and much of Central America, and breeds mostly in from Alaska and Newfoundland south to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico, and Guatemala.
These birds are named after the male of the species, which has a red shoulder and yellow wing bar. They are sexually dimorphic, with the females being a dark brown color all over. They are omnivorous and feed mostly on plant materials. This bird nests in loose colonies and is very territorial.
The red-winged blackbird is thought to be the most abundant living land bird in North America, with records showing that breeding pairs across North and Central America may exceed 250 million in peak years. Because of this, they are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Red Winged Blackbird Taxonomy
The red-winged blackbird belongs to the genus Agelaius, of which it is one of five members. The genus name is derived from Ancient Greek agelaios, meaning “gregarious”. This bird is a sister species to the red-shouldered blackbird (Agelaius assimilis) that is endemic to Cuba.
These two species are together sister to the tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) that is found on the Pacific coast region of the California and upper Baja California in Mexico.
There are between 20 and 24 subspecies of red-winged blackbird that are recognized. Here are the red-winged blackbird subspecies and groups of subspecies and the locations in which they are found below.
- A. p. arctolegus – found from southeastern Alaska and Yukon to the north-central United States, and migrates to the south-central United States.
- A. p. fortis – found from Montana to southeastern New Mexico, and migrates to Texas.
- A. p. nevadensis – found from southeastern British Columbia to Idaho, southeastern California, and southern Nevada, and migrates to southern Arizona.
- A. p. caurinus – found from the southwest coast of British Columbia to northwest California, and migrates to central California.
- A. p. aciculatus – found in the mountains of central-southern California.
- A. p. neutralis – found from the coast of southern California to the northwest of Baja California.
- A. p. sonoriensis – found from southeastern California to northeast Baja California, southern Nevada, central Arizona, and northwest Mexico.
- A. p. nyaritensis – found on the coastal plains of southwestern Mexico.
- A. p. grinnelli – found around the Pacific Slope from western Guatemala to northwest Costa Rica.
- A. p. phoeniceus – found from southeastern Canada to Texas and the southeastern United States.
- A. p. littoralis – found from the Gulf Coast from Southeast Texas to Northwest Florida.
- A. p. mearnsi – found in the extreme southeast of Georgia and northern Florida.
- A. p. floridanus – found in the South Florida.
- A. p. megapotamus – found from central Texas and the lower Rio Bravo valley to eastern Mexico.
- A. p. richmondi – found around the Caribbean slope from Mexico to Belize and northern Guatemala.
- A. p. pallidulus – found in southeast Mexico.
- A. p. nelsoni – found in south-central Mexico.
- A. p. matudae – found in the tropical southeast of Mexico.
- A. p. arthuralleni – found in northern Guatemala.
- A. p. brevirostris – found around the Caribbean slope of Honduras and southeastern Nicaragua.
- A. p. bryanti – found northwest of the Bahamas.
- A. p. mailliardorum – found around the Central California Coast.
- A. p. californicus – found around the Central Valley of California.
- A. p. gubernator – found around the Mexican Plateau.
Red Winged Blackbird Characteristics
Red-winged blackbirds are sexually dimorphic, with females being smaller than males. Female birds measure 17 to 18 cm (6.7 to 7.1 in) long and weigh around 41.5 g (1.46 oz), while males measure 22 to 24 cm (8.7 to 9.4 in) long and weigh around 64 g (2.3 oz). They have a wingspan of 30 to 37 cm.
The common name of the bird, the red-winged blackbird, is taken from the mainly black adult male’s distinctive red shoulder patches, or epaulets, which are visible when the bird is flying or displaying.
When resting, the male also shows a pale yellow wingbar. Females, on the other hand, have brown upper parts, while the lower parts are covered by an intense white and dark veining. They may also show a salmon pink stain on the shoulders and a clear pink color on the face.
Both sexes of red-winged black bird have a medium length, rounded tail, a sharply black pointed bill, and black eyes and feet. Young males and females resemble adult females in coloration.
Throughout their life, the red winged blackbird goes through various molts. Males undergo a transitional stage in which red epaulets appear orange in color before reaching their adult coloration.
These birds acquire its adult plumage only after the breeding season of the year following its birth when it is between thirteen and fifteen months of age, which is late in comparison to other North American passerines.
The wing spots on males are vital in the defense of the territory. Those with larger spots are more effective at chasing away their non-territorial rivals. Interestingly, the spots on the wings are a sign of threat among males and have an unimportant role, if any, in encounters with the opposite sex.
Red-winged Blackbird Lifespan
On average the red-winged blackbird does not have a very long lifespan, and usually only lives for around 2 years. However, the oldest recorded red winged blackbird in the wild lived to be over 15 years old, and may of these birds do live over the age of 10.
Red Winged Blackbird Diet
The red winged blackbird species is an omnivore that will feed on whatever they can find. They primarily feed on seeds and agricultural products, such as corn and rice, particularly in the non-breeding season. In season, blueberries, blackberries and other fruits are consumed, too.
However, mostly in the breeding season, these bicolored blackbirds will also feed on animal material such as snails, frogs, fledgling birds, eggs, carrion, worms, dragonflies, butterflies, moths, true flies and arachnids.
These birds forage for insects by picking them from plants, particularly the base of aquatic plants, or by catching them in flight.
Red Winged Blackbird Behavior
The red winged blackbird is a social bird, that roosts in large population and will often migrate in large flocks of a thousand or more. These birds are largely diurnal, spending most of their day foraging.
They perch in trees, bushes, fences and telephone lines while looking for their food. Their way of flying is characteristic, with rapid wing flaps punctuated by brief periods of gliding flight.
Red winged blackbirds do not really fight, although males of the species have been known to.
The red winged blackbird is very territorial, particularly during the breeding season. Males will defend their territory against other male red-winged blackbirds and also against other species of bird.
They will also swoop at humans that get too close to their nest.
The home range and territory size of the red-winged blackbird can vary greatly depending on the location and subspecies. Males usually control territories of approximately 2,000 square meters. Females occupy a territory with a single male along with many other females.
Both male and female red-winged blackbirds have a variety of calls, some of which are the same. They both use distress and alarm calls which differ with the nature of the threat, and short-contact calls are also common. Threat calls are also used to ward off predators.
Only males produce flight calls, which signal their exit from the territory.
These birds also use visual displays for communication, especially before and during mating. Males will use these displays to attract females and also to defend their territory from other males.
Red-winged Blackbird Reproduction
Red winged blackbirds breed from the end of April to the end of July and nest in loose colonies. These birds are polygynous, with territorial males defending up to 10 females. However, females frequently copulate with males other than their social mate and often lay clutches of mixed paternity.
Mating rituals begin with the song of the male. The displays from the males include vocalization in a crouched position with rapid and highly conspicuous fluttering of the wings. Females often do not return songs until they have established themselves in the territory of a male. The female responds with a similar crouch and vocalization when ready.
They build their nests in cattails, rushes, grasses, sedge, or alder or willow bushes. They are made with grasses, sedge, and mosses, lined with mud, and bound to surrounding grasses or branches, usually positioned 7.6 cm (3.0 in) to 4.3 m (14 ft) above water. The nest is constructed entirely by the female over the course of three to six days.
Females lay a clutch of three of four (rarely five) eggs, which are oval, smooth and slightly glossy in appearance and measure 24.8 mm x 17.55 mm (0.976 in x 0.691 in). They are usually pale bluish green, marked with brown, purple, and/or black.
The female incubates the egg alone for 11 to 12 days, after which the eggs are hatched. When born, the young red-winged blackbirds are blind and without feathers. Nestlings are fed almost immediately after hatching with small arthropods, such as dragonflies, moths and butterflies.
The nestlings are fed primarily by the female although the male will take part in the feeding process at times. The young are ready to leave the nest 11 to 14 days after hatching.
Pairs raise two or three clutches per season, with a new nest for each clutch. The juveniles usually reach sexual maturity in 2 to 3 years and females reproduce for up to ten years.
Red-winged Blackbird Location and Habitat
The red-winged blackbird is widely spread throughout North America, except in the arid desert, high mountain ranges, and arctic regions. They breed from central-eastern Alaska and Yukon in the northwest, Newfoundland in the northeast, northern Costa Rica in the south, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
They can generally be found in open grassy areas, preferring wetlands. The red-winged blackbird inhabits both freshwater and saltwater marshes, but can also be found in dry upland areas, such as in meadows, prairies, lightly wooded deciduous forests and fields. In winter red-winged blackbirds are most often found in open fields and croplands.
Red-winged Blackbird Migration
The winter ranges for red-winged blackbirds vary by geographic location. Red-winged blackbirds that breed in the northern part of their range, i.e., Canada and border states in the United States, migrate to southern United States and Central America beginning in September or October (or occasionally as early as August) for the winter.
However, populations near the Pacific and Gulf coasts of North America and those of Middle America are not migrants; they are year-round resident and spend the winter in their breeding ranges.
Red-winged Blackbird Conservation Status
The red winged blackbird is one of the most common, widespread and abundant birds across North America. They are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
They can survive in an array of habitats, which means they can overcome habitat loss well. Because of this, they are not really protected across their range from the effects of habitat loss and urbanization. Despite their ability to adapt, it is thought in the near future these birds will begin to suffer with the loss of wetland areas.
Red winged Blackbird Predators
Predators of the red-winged blackbird can vary based on location. The main predators of this bird species include racoons, owls, short-tailed hawks, red-tailed hawks, American mink, long-tailed weasels, common grackles, Eurasian magpies, and snakes.
Ravens and grazers such as marsh wrens feed on eggs and young chicks, but only when the nest is left unattended. To prevent creation on eggs and chicks, red-winged blackbirds nest in groups, and also nest over water. They also nest high in dense riparian reeds, at a height of one or two meters, to avoid being seen.
Red winged Blackbird Importance
Because the red-winged blackbird is a forager, it is very important to its ecosystem. These birds help to control insect populations, and help plants and crops grow by feeding on weeds. They eat pests which can harm cotton and alfalfa crops. They help to disperse seeds throughout their range, too. They can also be an important source of food for animals such as raccoons and mink.
Unfortunately, because these birds flock and roost in such large numbers, their ecosystem can also be affected in a negative. In some areas, they can appear to “take over” when migrating or nesting because they travel in very big groups. These birds can also devastate farm fields, leading to a loss of income for farmers. Because of this, farmers sometimes illegal poison these birds by using pesticides.
Red Winged Blackbird FAQs
Where are red winged blackbirds in the world?
Red-winged blackbirds are found all throughout North America. They range extends from southern Alaska at its northern most point, to the Yucatan peninsula in the south and covers the greater part of the continent from the Pacific coast of California and Canada to the eastern coast.
What do red winged blackbirds eat?
Red-winged blackbirds will feed on whatever they can find, although they mainly eat plant materials such as seeds, as well as animal material like snails, frogs, eggs, worms, dragonflies, butterflies and moths.
Are red winged blackbirds migratory?
Some-red winged blackbirds are migratory. Those that reside in the northern part of theor range are migratory, and spend their winters in the southern United States and Central America. In western and Central America, the populations are generally non-migratory.
Do red winged blackbirds have red wings?
Not exactly. Male red winged blackbirds are black all over and have a red shoulder and yellow wing bar. These red wing patches that give the bird its common name are most visible when the bird is flying or displaying. Female red-winged blackbirds, on the other hand, are mostly brown all over.
How many types of red winged blackbird are there?
There are between 20 and 24 subspecies of red winged blackbird found throughout North America.