Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle

I'm going to take a little break from featuring sparrows.

However, the female of this week's bird species resembles a sparrow, somewhat, and many novice birders would be wise to learn how to identify it.

The first time I saw a female red-winged blackbird as a child, I thought it was the largest sparrow in the world, but I quickly learned otherwise after a search through my trusty field guide.

Many beginning birders believe that very same thing, and struggle to figure out just what it is because they often look in the sparrow section of bird field guides, rather than the blackbird section.

It's easy enough to identify males as they are all black and have red on the wings but figuring out the female can sometimes be frustrating.

RWBs will visit feeders, so that is one more reason why it is a good idea to learn how to identify the female.

In fact, these birds often feed with brown-headed cowbirds, and are capable of consuming large amounts of wild bird seed in a short amount of time.

Appearance

Red-winged blackbirds are stocky, about the size of cardinals. They are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females are different colors from each other.

Both males and females have sharply pointed, conical beaks.

I will start by describing female red-winged blackbirds.

Females are various shades of brown — from beige to dark (see photos). Their breasts, sides and bellies are beige, but heavy streaked with brown.

The male is the one with the red on the wings (see photos). However, the red is not always visible.

In the spring and summer, males are shiny black all over with brilliant red patches, or “epaulets,” on what you might call the shoulders. The patches have yellow borders on the bottoms.

The red patches are often hidden by feathers but are displayed when the male sings.

In fall and winter, males develop light brown feather tips which give them the appearance of having scales. The feather tips also make it appear that the males black coloring has faded.

The red patches, however, will fade dramatically in the fall and winter.

Range

Red-winged blackbirds are permanent residents all over Oklahoma and nearly all other states in the Union, except for portions of a few northern states. During the breeding season, their range covers the entire United States and well into Canada.

Habitat

During the breeding season, red-winged blackbirds spend much time near water, especially cattails in marshy areas. And even along roadsides.

In winter, red-winged blackbirds will frequent drier areas such as pastures, agricultural fields and residential yards.

Food

Red-winged blackbirds will visit feeders and are attracted to a plethora of things including millet, milo, black-oil and striped sunflower seeds, cracked corn, peanut hearts and even oats.

Although they do visit elevated feeders, from what I’ve observed at my feeders, they prefer seed on the ground.

Like many birds, they eat mostly insects during the warmer months.

Nesting

Male red-winged blackbirds spend much of the breeding season at the tops of trees singing to impress females and sending warnings to other males.

Red-winged blackbirds are not monogamous. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. According to experts, males can mate with up to 15 females in a season. And females can mate with several males in a season, which can lead to a clutch of eggs some of which have different fathers. In fact, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, from one-quarter to one-half of nestlings found in a given nest could’ve been sired by someone other than the territorial male.

For the most part, females choose nesting sites and build the nest. Nests are constructed in dense vegetation, usually, but not always, just above water.

The first time I discovered an RWB nest, it was attached to three cattail stalks about two feet above the water in a marshy area near a highway rest stop. As with most RWB nests, it was well-hidden.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a female will lay two to four eggs. Incubation takes about two weeks, as does the nestling period.

Red-winged blackbirds will often attack larger birds and predators that venture too close to its nesting territory. Rarely, they will attack humans who get too close as well.

Odds and ends

• Red-winged blackbirds sometimes form massive congregations in winter. They will also join with other blackbirds to form large flocks.

• According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest recorded RWB was nearly 16 years old. However, most only live a few years.

• The racket that males make during the breeding season — along with dickcissels — are truly sounds of spring and summer. If you’re around water and/or a field in late spring or during the summer, these are the two bird species you’ll probably hear the most. Also, the best way for you to hear a bird’s song online is to just perform a search of the bird. You can find them on the website for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” or search for the bird on YouTube. There are usually dozens of videos of each species of birds singing.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

RANDY’S NATURAL WORLD