Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Photo by A. A. Allen.

The Red-Winged Blackbird

Teacher's Story

THE blackbirds are among our earliest visitors in the spring; they come in flocks and beset our leafless trees like punctuation marks, meanwhile squeaking like musical wheelbarrows. What they are, where they come from, where they are going and what they are going to do, are the questions that naturally arise at the sight of these sable flocks. It is not easy to distinguish grackles, cowbirds and rusty blackbirds at a glance, but the red-wing proclaims his identity from afar. The bright red epaulets, margined behind with pale yellow, is a uniform to catch the admiring eye. The bird's glossy black plumage brings into greater contrast his bright decorations. That he is fully aware of his beauty, who can doubt who has seen him come sailing down at the end of his strong, swift flight, and balancing himself on some bending reed, drop his long tail as if it were the crank of his music box, and holding both wings lifted to show his scarlet decorations, sing his "quong quer ee-ee." Little wonder that such a handsome, military looking fellow should be able now and then to win more than his share of feminine admiration. But what though he become an entirely successful bigamist or even trigamist, he has proven himself to be a good protector of each and all of his wives and nestlings; however, he often has but one mate.

"The red-wing flutes his O-ka-lee" is Emerson's graphic description of the sweet song of the red-wing; he also has many other notes. He clucks to his mates and clucks more sharply when suspicious, and has one alarm note that is truly alarming. The male red-wings come from the South in March; they appear in flocks, often three weeks before their mates arrive. The female looks as though she belonged to quite a different species. Although her head and back are black, the black is decidedly rusty; it is quite impossible to describe her, she is so inconspicuously speckled with brown, black, whitish buff and orange. Most of us never recognize her unless we see her with her spouse. As she probably does most of the nest building, her suit of salt, pepper and mustard renders her invisible to the keen eyes of birds of prey. Only when she is flying, does she show her blackbird characteristics,—her tail being long and of obvious use as a steering organ; and she walks with long, stiff strides. The red-wings are ever to be found in and about swamps and marshes. The nest is built usually in May; it is made of grasses, stalks of weeds and is lined with finer grass or reeds. It is bulky and is placed in low bushes or among the reeds. The eggs are pale blue, streaked and spotted with purple or black. The young resemble the mother in color, the males being obliged to wait a year for their epaulets. As to the food of the red-wings here in the North, Mr. Forbush says:

"Although the red-wings almost invariably breed in the swamp or marsh, they have a partiality for open fields and plowed lands; however, most of the blackbirds that nest in the smaller swamps adjacent to farm lands get a large share of their food from the farmer's fields. They forage about the fields and meadows when they first come north in the spring. Later, they follow the plow, picking up grubs, worms and caterpillars; and should there be an outbreak of canker-worms in the orchard, the blackbirds will fly at least half a mile to get canker-worms for their young. Wilson estimated that the red-wings of the United States would in four months destroy sixteen thousand two hundred million larvæ. They eat the caterpillars of the gypsy moth, the forest tent-caterpillar, and other hairy larvæ. They are among the most destructive birds to weevils, click beetles, and wire-worms. Grasshoppers, ants, bugs, and flies form a portion of the red-wing's food. They eat comparatively little grain in Massachusetts, although they get some from newly sown fields in spring, as well as from the autumn harvest; but they feed very largely on the seeds of weeds and wild rice in the fall. In the South they join with the bobolink in devastating the rice fields, and in the West they are often so numerous as to destroy the grain in the fields; but here the good they do far outweighs the injury, and for this reason they are protected by law."


The mother red-wing, her nest and nestlings.

Photo by A. A. Allen.

Lesson XXIX

The Red-Winged Blackbird

Leading thought—The red-winged blackbird lives in the marshes where it builds its nest. However, it comes over to our plowed lands and pastures and helps the farmer by destroying many insects which injure the meadows, crops and trees.

Method—The observations should be made by the pupils individually in the field. These birds may be looked for in flocks early in the spring, but the study should be made in May or June when they will be found in numbers in almost any swamp. The questions may be given to the pupils a few at a time or written in their field notebooks and the answers discussed when discovered.


1. How can you distinguish the red-winged blackbird from all other blackbirds? Where is the red on his wings? Is there any other color besides red on the wings? Where? What is the color of the rest of the plumage?

2. What is there peculiar in the flight of the red-wing? Is its tail long or short? How does it use its tail in flight? What is its position when the bird alights on a reed?

3. What is the song of the red-wing? Describe the way he holds his wings and tail when singing, balanced on a reed or some other swamp grass. Does he show off his epaulets when singing? Why? What note does he give when he is surprised or suspicious? When frightened?

4. When does the red-wing first appear in the spring? Does he come alone or in flocks? Does his mate come with him? Where do the red-wings winter? In what localities do the red-wing blackbirds live? Why do they live there? What is the color of the mother red-wing? Would you know by her looks that she was a blackbird? What advantage is it to the pair that the female is so dull in color?

5. At what time do these birds nest? Where is the nest built? Of what material? How is it concealed? What is the color of the eggs?

6. Do the young birds resemble in color their father or their mother? Why is this an advantage?

7. Is the red-wing ever seen in fields adjoining the marshes? What is he doing there? Does he walk or hop when looking for food? What is the food of the red-wings? Do they ever damage grain? Do they not protect grain more than they damage it?

8. What great good do the red-wings do for forest trees? For orchards?

9. At what time in the summer do the red-wings disappear from the swamps? Where do they gather in flocks? Where is their special feeding ground on the way south for the winter?


The red-winged blackbird.

After Audubon Leaflet  No. 25.

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