Among the most widespread and recognizable birds in the U.S., the red-winged blackbird is a bold singer whose increased activity carries a promise of warmer weather.
What it is: Red-winged blackbirds have a classic leggy songbird shape, and are a little smaller and slimmer than a robin.
Males are a solid glossy black with flashy red and yellow epaulets on the shoulders of their wings, which they often puff up when showing off for females and rivals. Adult females look completely different. Dull brown with brown and pale streaks on their heads, they resemble overgrown sparrows.
Blackbirds are fiercely territorial, and males defending a grassy or marshy area may be bold enough to dive-bomb people. But their primary defense is singing their songbird hearts out as a warning to other nearby individuals. The piercing call lasts about a second and sounds like "conk-la-REE," with the last syllable drawn out in a high-pitched, buzzing trill.
While females will also defend their nesting areas, they're much more likely to be found hopping among the reeds below the singing males, hunting for bugs.
Where to find it: Come summer, it will be hard to escape the song of the red-winged blackbird, especially along the Shore. The birds favor wetlands, and you can easily spot them in droves in large stretches of phragmites and native reeds along tidal rivers and bays.
It's not unusual to see some individuals overwinter in New Jersey, but as February draws to a close, the birds' distinctive song will become more noticeable as migratory populations move back into the area.
If you want to get a good look at a male, step into some reeds and give a good round of "pishing" sounds. You'll undoubtedly have one or more red-wings as company shortly.
Why bother: I've known birders who will train their binoculars on a distant, flitting wing and then lower them, dismissing what they saw as "just a blackbird."
It's true that around here, they're about as common as they come. But there's something about blackbirds that always makes me stop and look and listen. They're so intensely attuned to their surroundings – the better to spot enemies – and so bold that you can feel like you're having a conversation with them as they trill and flap and dance from one reed stalk to another.
And after months of winter – even a mild one like this – it's reassuring to step outside, hear their song and be reminded that spring is just around the corner.