Bird of the Month: Red-winged Blackbird

(Opening photo credit:  Len Blumin)

“I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.
~ Joseph Addison

Spring is upon us and nothing screams spring louder than the song of a desperate someone in need of some nookie.

Conk-kah-reee!  Who wants meeee? That’s the song of the Red-winged Blackbird.

This spring — a first in nearly a decade — our backyard feeders have been blessed by huge flocks of these vocal beauties. Though considered one of the more abundant bird species in the United States, we normally only see them in their element at Brazos Bend State Park. Unlike other opportunists, they are marsh and field birds, rarely yardbirds as a general rule.  Since the land surrounding our property is making way for more human development and toll roads, destruction of breeding and feeding grounds included, we were not surprised to see them here.

Welcome, my friends, to the all-you-can-eat DirtNKids Buffet. Belly up.

cloud, as their group is called, is more timid than you might think, making it difficult to shoot [with a camera] up close like this. (I shot this video from the roving bird blind a/k/a/ minivan.) While the males call from the treetops, females rule the ground under the feeder, stomping and pecking off smaller birds as they forage for leftover seed. They are prettier, I think, more striking than their male counterparts.

Man, are those females feisty. Good luck, Red-winged Dudes. Watch your backs.

Our joy of their arrival was quickly replaced by a more unsettling feeling:  Scottie found a dead one.

Death is part of life, we always tell them, as we all have a finite shelf life. Sometimes, we die before our time, like the pig, on the roadside, struck by car. Sometimes, it can even be a child. Life and death walk hand-in-hand; just about anything could have killed our feathered friend. So we shrugged it off and gave the bird a proper funeral procession by the creek.

The next day, another dead bird, and later, in the span of a few hours, another acted strangely; Scottie was able to approach her within just a few feet, odd for a blackbird. When she did fly off, it was not not up into the canopy with the rest of the flock as expected, but low, along the ground in short sprints.

He worrried.

It might have been the same bird, but we then watched from the indoors as one died right before our eyes. I could no longer ignore the coincidence — three dead birds in just a couple of days — inasmuch as I could barely console my child who discovered them all. It was time to spring into action.

What was it exactly, killing these birds? 

We contacted the folks at Harris County Public Health. “Skins” — as dead bird specimens are called — can be useful for a variety of reasons, but in the Houston area, as in other “hot zones” of the United States, dead birds can clue us into upcoming disease outbreaks, particularly ones that can affect humans [1].

Dead Bird
Dead Bird

It had not crossed my mind that a mosquito could be the culprit. We froze the bird immediately as requested, completed the on-line report for their database, and delivered him the next day for testing by ornithological biologists in Houston. We waited for results.

Though not typically associated with an outbreak of West Nile Virus, a potentially fatal neurological disease in humans [2], antibodies to it in a dead bird can suggest mosquitoes as carriers; officials are then alerted to ramp up mosquito patrol in hot zones (like ours). Crows, blue jays, or horses are most adversely affected by this virus, succumbing to it instead [3] — these deaths are positive indicators. Though West Nile is not transmissible between species, mosquitoes that carry it can pass it directly to a human who gets bit.

Thankfully, the tests came back negative. Sadly, however, it was the biologist’s opinion that this young bird had starved to death, based upon his fat stores and other indicators.

We celebrated the findings with a trip to the feed store, stocking up on additional black oil sunflower seed. For the next season at least, it will be like feeding a household of teenagers:  three times a day with frequent clean-ups in between.

Here’s to hoping they [all] move out of the house one day, healthy and happy, and living good long lives.

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8 thoughts on “Bird of the Month: Red-winged Blackbird

  1. Wow, those are a lot of bird deaths. Maybe it is that time of year when birds who had a tough time finding food die of starvation. Sad. Better than a virus though. The RWBBs won’t be back here for another month. Looking forward to their singing! 🙂

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    1. Your loss is my pleasure. They are back in our trees again singing their spring-y song! I give them a feeder all to themselves. They, the squirrels, the other blackbirds and grackles, and the doves enjoy the feast in a wide open area to the back — where I can see but where the mess can be better managed! We have rat friends too…

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  2. I am loving your posts on birding and am learning lots (and I thought I was a birder). So glad it was negative for the scary stuff, but how SAD that it may have starved! You’ve motivated me to get out there (in the snow…. grumble…) and clean and refill those feeders (rather than just keep topping up). Gotta do what we can to help these darling winged lovelies. Thanks for sharing this Shannon. Cheers, Gina

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    1. I am loving DOING the posts on birding; it’s been a glorious activity to do as a family. Just came in from resting out by the creek — after doing some laborious yard chores — watching the bull frogs, herons, and kingfishers and enjoying my lunch under the lime green canopy. I seriously hope you guys are done with snow soon; still unseasonably cool here in the 70’s; and yes, don’t forget about the mini-two-legged varieties around your property. Glad you stopped by, Gina!

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  3. Thank you for noticing and taking care. I’m not much of a birder, but there was one doglegged corner on the dirt into town where the red-winged black birds lived. Every trip into town, I’d look for “my friends” and grin upon finding them (often in the blackberry bushes.) They disappeared from that corner about 8 years ago, but my mother told me they’d returned again summer before last. They have a soft spot in my heart 🙂

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    1. We’ve not considered ourselves “birders” either, until the past few months; my middle son and daughter have driven that! And the intimate experience with this species, they have a soft spot in my heart too. But the Rufous Hummingbird (Jan) and Wilson’s Warbler (Feb) are no less memorable. Can’t wait to see which bird makes the April cover.

      Blackberries, huh? I’ve a few brambles that we’re letting to “take over” a couple of spots. I hope they notice and decide to stay. Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope you and half-pint are enjoying the splendid changes weather.

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