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Red-winged Blackbird Epaulettes

3-11-13 redwing epaulettes IMG_2348Male red-winged blackbirds have returned to Vermont, and their most notable features are the brightly-colored reddish-orange feathers on their “shoulders”, referred to as epaulettes. In the military, an epaulette is a shoulder ornament that indicates, through its position, color, length and diameter, the bearer’s rank. Some birds, including male redwings, also possess this badge, or visual cue, which indicates the social status of the bird to other birds of the same species. Studies of male red-winged blackbirds and their epaulettes indicate (through dyeing their bright orange/red shoulder patches black) that epaulettes play a significant role in the male’s defense of his territory. Over 60% of the redwings that had their epaulettes dyed black lost their territories to other males. Further research revealed that aggression by a territorial male redwing is proportional to the epaulette size of the encroaching male redwing. It also indicated that male redwings intruding into redwing-occupied territories greatly limit the exposure of their epaulettes by covering them with black feathers. (Female red-winged blackbird plumage is brown and lacks epaulettes.)

4 responses

  1. Kathryn

    I sure hope that when they were done they dyed the epaulettes back to red so the poor birds could get on with life!

    March 11, 2013 at 1:16 pm

  2. What a great photo as always Mary! Just heard a redwing this morning as I went out to fill the feeders. A welcome sign of spring.
    (I agree with Kathryn’s comment. Although an interesting experiment, how awful to be the one who gets stuck with black epaulettes for the sake of research!)

    March 11, 2013 at 2:07 pm

  3. Fascinating!

    I can’t wait to hear/see one!

    March 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm

  4. joan waltermire

    Mary, I had no idea the epaulette story was so complex. I love it. “Clothes make the man.”

    March 12, 2013 at 2:29 am

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