Two species of birds that I enjoy seeing during the autumn and winter months in North Carolina (NC) are red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus, above left) and rusty blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus, above right). Both species breed in the northern USA and Canada, traveling to the southern USA during the colder months.
There is also a population of red-winged blackbirds that nest in NC’s Piedmont region. I’ve seen them collecting nesting material at local ponds and wetlands but have never had the pleasure of seeing their nests or watching them feed their young.
The red-winged blackbirds have two avian records to their name: 1) currently perhaps the most numerous land bird in North America, with counts of more than 1 million birds in a flock!! and 2) one of the most researched wild bird species anywhere.
The male red-wings call the attention of females with the red and yellow patches on their wings. It turns out that those with larger patches are more successful in disputes with other males for territory and mates.
Some males have been recorded as having up to 15 mates in their territories during a season, but it turned out that 24-50% of the nestlings had another male as a parent!
It is interesting that Native American languages also had common names that describe their physical characteristics (red patch, spotted, marked). The longest one that I read about was “memiskondinimaanganeshiinh” (Ojibwa meaning “a bird with a very red damn-little shoulder blade”)!
During breeding season, the male rusty blackbirds have glossy black plumage with a greenish sheen. At other times, they have rusty tips to their feathers, giving them a mottled look.
The females may also look a bit mottled but have much more light brown and beige coloration.
In contrast to the numerous red-winged blackbirds, the rusty blackbirds used to have high numbers but have lost up to 85-99% of their populations during the past 40 years for unknown reasons.
The sharp decline is so mystifying that scientists have formed an International Rusty Blackbird Working Group to investigate what is happening.
One possible explanation is a decline in wetlands, especially in the Southeastern USA where 80% of the birds overwinter. A resurgence in beaver ponds may be helping them, which shows how protecting one wildlife species can also assist another one. I have indeed seen them in areas where beavers have been active.
The rusty blackbirds that I spotted were indeed using local wetlands in their search for food, turning over the sodden leaves with their feet and beaks as they searched for sustenance.
The International Working Group is asking people to report their sightings of these birds to eBird to help track the species.
To close this blog, I wanted to share just a few photos of some other birds who are a beautiful black color: my faithful American crow couple (Corvus brachyrhynchos).
Unfortunately, it appears that one of the birds has somehow suffered an injury to one leg and foot. S/he has been hopping around on the ground and can fly well, but it is a mystery as to what happened to hurt this large bird. Perhaps a tussle with one of the neighborhood hawks?
Spring weather is beginning in our area, which means some avian species will be leaving us and some new ones will be arriving or passing through in the coming weeks. The next blog will feature a few of our feathered friends who will be leaving.