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.

For the Birds: Blackbirds return — in force

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-winged blackbird at Bashakill National Wildlife Refuge.

I heard them, that’s for sure. There was no missing the cacophony made by a large mixed flock of blackbirds.

Then the task became finding them. I figured I wouldn’t struggle too much at this chore as the trees are bare and I could tell from the sound of things there were a lot of them. It wasn’t as easy as I thought, but I did find them in fairly short order.

Yes, the trees were bare, but the sound was coming from a bit of a distance away and I was on terrain with many rolling hills. I crested the second hill and there they were in all their glory. The flock was mostly grackles, but a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds completed the flock.

All told there were about 80 birds. It was a sizable flock, but certainly not the biggest I have seen and most certainly not the biggest working its way into or through New England now.

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the earliest spring migrants to return. My story took place last week, in early March, which is actually a few weeks later than we usually start seeing them. In fact, Elena from Winchester had a few hardy red-winged blackbirds visit her feeders all throughout winter. The flock I saw the other day carried on for a while and then suddenly got quiet. I don’t know if the birds spotted a predator or if they were ready to settle in for the night as it was well into dusk.

I certainly could have missed something, especially considering the fading light, but I noted only grackles and red-winged blackbirds. These mixed flocks of blackbirds often have brown-headed cowbirds and starlings as well. If you’re lucky and take the time to scrutinize over the individual birds in the flock, you may find an unexpected visitor such as yellow-headed blackbird, boat-tailed grackle or rusty blackbird. It is believed that blackbirds winter and migrate in large flocks to offer better protection against predators and, perhaps, more effectively find food sources.

Yes, the spring migration is under way. It won’t be long now before the phoebes start showing up. To me, the return of “my” phoebes to the backyard signifies the real beginning of spring. Then, of course, birds of all shapes, colors and sizes will return to New England to either breed here or pass through on their way to northern breeding grounds.

It hasn’t been much of a winter, at least where I am in New England. That doesn’t mean winter is over, not by any means. I’ve been in New England long enough to know that we aren’t out of the woods until the third or even fourth week of April. Let’s hope it’s not another winter that stretches well into our spring. But that’s out of our control. If it is a long winter, we will deal with it. We always do.

BirdsofNewEngland’s random bird thought of the day: Male Red-winged Blackbirds

Here’s your random bird thought of the day, brought to you by

Photo by Chris Bosak Red-winged Blackbird at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Ct. May 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Red-winged Blackbird at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Ct. May 2013.

Have you heard male Red-winged Blackbirds singing yet? I sure have. Did you know that male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive in New England a few weeks before the females? The males arrive earlier to stake out territory for suitable nesting areas. They sing (konk-a-ree!!) to tell other males that this spot is taken already. Soon they’ll be singing to attract females, which will pick a male that has what they deem to be a good spot for raising youngsters.