For the Birds: Red-winged blackbirds getting an early jump

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Winter officially may still have about four weeks to go and, in New England, goodness knows how many weeks or months left unofficially, but it’s not too early to start discussing spring migration.

I’m not trying to jinx the mild weather we’ve had and cause a winter that lingers into May like some of our recent winters. Even if winter does roar back, there are still plenty of birdwatching opportunities to be had. It’s a hobby for all seasons.

Regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead, signs of spring from the world of birds are here already. One morning as I walked to fill the feeders I noticed the extremely pleasant and welcomed sounds of cardinals, Carolina wrens and song sparrows singing their hearts out.  

Red-winged blackbirds, one of the earliest signs of spring, have returned already to many parts of New England. Pat from Sandwich wrote to say she had six red-winged blackbirds in her backyard last week. There have been other reports of red-winged blackbirds in New Hampshire, including one report by Brian of Keene, who included the sighting on the American Birding Association’s bird news website.

The ABA site also includes reports of ravens and crows carrying sticks and other nesting material. Larger birds such as hawks, ravens and crows start nesting earlier than our smaller birds. Owls start even earlier, and many have been on nests for over a month.

What happens to all these birds if the weather does take a prolonged turn for the worse? The larger birds on nests will be fine. They have been nesting this early for years and the birds and nests are built to withstand harsh conditions.

Those red-winged blackbirds, and any other smaller birds that may have returned early, may have a tougher road ahead should we experience a severe cold snap. It’s a risk-reward scenario for those birds. They can return to New England and pick out the best nesting spots and improve their chances of attracting a mate, but they risk freezing to death if the weather turns. Or, they can hold back and risk losing the top nesting sites but have the reward of not putting themselves at the mercy of a New England winter.

Some red-winged blackbirds remain all winter, similar to robins. I received an email from Lenny in Greenfield on December 11 saying he had a small number of red-winged blackbirds at his feeder.

So, the spring migration has already started. It will be slow for the next several weeks, however, as more red-winged blackbirds return to the region. American woodcock will return to our woods and fields by the middle of March, and eastern phoebes and osprey will be back by the end of March.

Things will start to really heat up in April, but we’ll get into that later.