Interview: Red-Winged Blackbirds Heralds of Spring

  • A male Red-winged Blackbird (Photo courtesy of the USFWS)

Many people in the Great Lakes region are told to watch for the robin as a sign that Spring has come. But that bird may not be the best indicator, even after this especially cold winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum decided to venture out beyond his backyard to find a better sign:


Many people in the (Midwest/Great Lakes region) are told to watch for the Robin as a sign that
Spring has come. But that bird may not be the best indicator, even after this especially cold
winter. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jim Blum decided to venture out beyond his
backyard to find a better sign:

Blum: You might think of a robin or a bluebird as harbingers of spring but that may not be
correct. I’m Jim Blum with naturalist Dan Best, we’re at the edge of a marsh on a soggy

Best: Well Jim, it’s true that the greater numbers of bluebirds and robins arrive back in these
parts in March, but bluebirds and robins – they’re frequent enough in winter to ruin their
reputations as the heralds of spring.

Blum: Well, I’m thinking you have another bird in mind.

Best: Well, yeah, I was thinking of the blackbirds actually. The grackles and red-winged
blackbirds. They usually hit town in February.

Blum: I’ve always associated red-winged black birds with cattails. Aren’t they birds of the

Best: Well, yes. Marshes are their traditional habitat and remain their preferred habitat. They
weave a basket-like nest among the stems of the cattails, the rushes or other tall plants at the
waters edge. And while marshes are their favorite still, they’ve branched out.

Blum: You mean they’re starting to use other habitats?

Best: Why yes, as you know Jim, in a trend that unfortunately continues today marshes and other
shallow water wetlands – as they have been for decades – have been drained or filled for
agriculture and building.

Blum: Which would explain why so many of our rare and endangered plants and animals are
wetland species.

Best: Yes, indeed. However, as many forms of wetland wildlife have declined with the loss of
their habitat, red wing black birds, apparently more adaptable, have made a successful transition
into upland habitats, such as meadows and grassy interstate margins, hay fields, clover, alfalfa

Blum: Well there’s no wonder why there’s so many of them. I can recall those huge flocks that
we saw in the fall strung out across the sky almost like a plume of smoke.

(sound of huge flocks of birds)

Best: Yeah, and every night for several weeks they gather by the hundreds to roost in trees near
somebody’s house.

(red-wing blackbird song)

Blum: Well, red-wing blackbirds at almost any time of the year are pretty noisy birds. Their
song, if you can call it that, certainly doesn’t rival the cardinal or any other songbird for that

Best: No, you’re right about that, Jim. Can’t argue that point.

Blum: What does the bird look like? Can you describe it?

Best: Well, as the name implies they’re overall black. The males, they have a yellowish wing
bar and they also have a red shoulder patch or epaulet that they display while they are
establishing their territory or engaging in courtship.

Blum: What about the females?

Best: Well, they’re different looking. They actually look like big sparrows. That is, they’re
kind of a dark brown and very streaky.

Blum: Describe this display that the male is putting on.

Best: Well, they find a prominent perch and then from here they fan out their wings and tail
feathers and let out a real boisterous kon-kor-eeeee.

Blum: So this is to establish territory and they’ll keep doing this even before the females have

(walking in grass)

Best: That’s right. They’re staking their claim but once the once the girls arrive well then this
display really kicks into high gear.

Blum: What’s the best way to see the antics of the red wing?

Best: Well, since these birds are pretty common, chances are you’re not going to have to go too
far from home. A little patch of cattails or reeds alongside the road. I mean, invariably they’ll be
perched on a wire or on a tree nearby will be a male red-wing displaying.

Blum: While other birds get more poetic respect, I have a sense you feel this bird is special.

Best: Well, yeah, as spring proceeds we’ll see more musical songsters come our way, but
doggone it, you know, when I hear that quirky song of the red-winged blackbird in late winter
when there is still snow on the ground, to me, that’s one of the first sure signs of spring.

Blum: That’s naturalist Dan Best. I’m Jim Blum for the Great Lakes Radio Consortium. Let’s
check out that cattail stand, do you think we’re going to get one?

Best: Oh, I’ll betcha there’ll be one there.

(sound of walking in marsh, fades out)

Native Landscapers Go Wild

  • Lisa Johnson shows off a rough blazing star, a native prairie plant. Johnson is a member of Wild Ones - Natural Landscapers, Ltd. The group encourages growing native plants to save the genetic diversity and to attract wildlife.

More and more backyard gardeners are tending plants they once
considered to be weeds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
reports… these backyard naturalists are creating tiny natural areas to
save the plants and attract wildlife: