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Red-Winged Blackbird: First Sign of Spring

The distinctive song of this wetland-dweller is a herald of the coming season

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.

Bricktown Lew February 19, 2012 at 08:45 PM
As one that appreciates wildlife and is a "backyard birder," I love nature articles about our local wildlife. I always think it's a treat to spot Red-Winged Blackbirds. Nice article!
lacey voter February 19, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Didn't read the article. But I have noticed hundreds upon hundreds of robins since christmas..Early spring I guess
Trish February 19, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Enjoyed reading the article. I'll be looking for them.
Catherine Galioto (Editor) February 19, 2012 at 10:59 PM
They are a frequent visitor to Cattus Island Park. The area with all the bird feeders at the visitor center there is a great spot to find them.
. February 20, 2012 at 01:37 AM
I live near Cattus Island Park and I don't believe that I have ever seen one. I have plenty of cardinals around though.
Catherine Galioto (Editor) February 20, 2012 at 03:03 AM
I hope you spot one soon. Cattus Island has that board outside the nature center that says which species were recently seen, so check it out!
Ryan Gross February 20, 2012 at 04:20 AM
In summer they are stacked up in the back bays. Take a kayak back in the marsh in between the sods and you will see and HEAR them. They like to make a lot of noise. They look like little soldiers with their epaulets.
Beach_N8iv February 20, 2012 at 12:30 PM
I saw one of these in the tree outside my bathroom window last week in Point Beach.
christine bourke February 20, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Our property has a creek that flows into the river hence we have the most amazing wildlife all year long from the Great Blue heroin to the smaller wren who sings a beautiful song. I too find great joy watching and listening to these incredible creatures the golden eagle has graced us the last few weeks. Looking forward to seeing our hummingbirds who were in great force last summer ..how lucky are we to live with mother natures finest!
Graelyn Brashear February 20, 2012 at 01:00 PM
Looking for them by kayak is a great idea!
bayway mike February 20, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Me too, guessing that the Groundhog got it wrong!!
Mark Wendell February 20, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Never see to many of these in Ocean County but I have seen quite a few in Atlantic at the Edwin Forshye driving/birding trail.
Joan Haldane February 20, 2012 at 08:20 PM
Saw some yesterday here in Seaside Park.
nascarfan February 21, 2012 at 01:18 AM
Cardinals don't migrate south for the winter. They're here all year.
lacey voter February 21, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Well Ken..Not one person said cardinals migrate..But we are sure glad you are here to point out already well known facts
Dave Sleeper February 24, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I don't think Robins migrate like they use to. LOL, I KNOW Canadian Geese don"t.
Penn Cross February 26, 2013 at 09:01 PM
I saw a couple red-winged blackbirds today, as ornery as ever.

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