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Garden Visitor: The Red-Winged Blackbird

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21July 23, 2014

With his distinctive markings, the male red-winged blackbird is instantly recognizable. He calls attention to himself, not only by showing off his bright epaulets, but through his ostentatious behavior and constant song.

Gardening picture

The red-winged blackbird (Agelaium phoeniceus) is a stocky, medium-to-large bird with a long, sharp beak. Males are glossy black with a bright red shoulder patch edged in yellow; females are colored a dark, streaky brown.

ImageHabitat and Range
One of the most abundant of North American birds, the red-winged blackbird’s range extends from southeastern Alaska to southernmost Florida. Among its favored habitats are marshes, meadows and fields, as well as vegetation surrounding waterways. This species mostly winter in the south, where it inhabits pastures and crop fields. At this time, the red-winged blackbird may congregate with other blackbirds, cowbirds, starlings and grackles, forming flocks of thousand or even millions of birds.

The red-winged blackbird’s diet consists largely of insects during the summer months. In the winter, they eat seeds, including corn and wheat. These birds are often found in open farmland, where they can do a lot of damage to crops. In return, however, they consume large numbers of harmful insects.

The male sings “o-ka-leeee!” repeatedly. Females answer with three or five short “check” notes. When alarmed, both sexes make fast, scolding “check” sounds. You can hear the red-winged blackbird here.

Mating and Nesting

This species is highly polygynous, meaning that each male has many female mates, up to 15 at one time. Their well-camouflaged nests are often near the ground in marsh vegetation, shrubs or trees. Deep and well-made, nests consist of a mud foundation filled with grasses and twigs and lined with soft materials.


Males are highly territorial during the breeding period, and spend much of their day perched high above their territory, ready to engage in defensive actions. In addition to fending off potential rivals, the red-winged blackbird is constantly vigilant, ready to attack anything he regards as a threat -- including humans.

Although their aggressive behavior appears to be largely a bluff, anyone who’s ever been dive-bombed by one of these birds can tell you that the experience is unnerving. If possible, avoid walking/running/biking through red-winged blackbird territory during nesting season. Otherwise, experts say, try staring directly at an aggressive bird to deter its attack. And don’t forget to wear a sturdy hat!

Attracting to Your Yard
These birds are attracted to cracked corn and millet. They prefer to feed on the ground, but will readily crowd smaller birds away from feeders.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Red-Winged Blackbird
Audobon: Red-Winged Blackbird

Time: Chicago Under Attack -- By Blackbirds

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo by Alexandra MacKenzie
Red-Winged Blackbird on cattail by Tim Harding

  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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