Red-wings

Here in Minnesota, nothing says “winter is ending” like the assertive call of the Red-winged Blackbird.

The males of Agelaius phoeniceus arrive first, flying back from Mexico and the deep South. They claim territories among the cattails in a wetland – or in a ditch by a highway – and defend them aggressively.

The principal combat weapons are a threatening posture and brilliant orange-red shoulder patches. The bird tries to look as large and intimidating as possible while unfurling his battle flags (normally concealed) to maximum size.

He jumbles up his feathers to look like he’s just been in a fight – and won – fills his lungs, puts his head back, opens his beak wide and emits the battle cry:

It’s all just a show, of course, to attract mates. While this is going on in the upper story of cattails, the females are below, weaving nests in territories of males that sufficiently impressed them. Red-wings have extreme sexual dimorphism, and the smaller females wear camouflage.

Not everyone likes Red-winged Blackbirds. They’re possibly the most numerous land birds in North America, and their huge flocks can decimate crops. They’re also bad-tempered and don’t like people; a nesting female once flew at me and raked her claws over my cap. But I’m not a farmer, and I think they’re magnificent as they reclaim their native wetlands for another year, fight each other to secure the best cattails, and spar at a distance with powerful, musical calls, in the late-day light.

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