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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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9 responses

  1. Roseanne Saalfield


    Not only do I love and appreciate your blog but I love how, often enough, a question that has been on my mind, a lot, is raised or addressed by your blog. Jim and I were birding at the Oxbow over the weekend and we began the walk saying ‘Really should find a Red-Wing’ on this walk’. Talked to a Fish and Wildlife ranger who had seen one in Sudury a few days before and we all three wondered together how they could possibly feel about all the snow still around them. Thanks for making that very clear. I had no idea they were such successful and flexible eaters, tho I am well aware of how the diets of birds fluctuate through the year. The Red-Wing we did find on our Oxbow walk – but sadly could not see – sounded like it was quite high in a tree nearby. I wondered why and how it could sound like it was high up when I always look for them lower to the ground – and of course near water. You’ve explained so much and I thank you again…and I have found my own personal first-sign-of-spring in that one little Red-Wing. Regardless of our foot of snow here in Harvard – juxtaposed to my Pittsburgh cousin’s note about how he’s planted spinach seed already – I am encouraged to think spring will really come.


    March 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

    • Hi Roseanne,
      It still must be challenging to keep warm even with feathers and a varied diet when it’s -15 degrees out, don’t you think? Glad Red-wings have returned to Harvard!

      March 17, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  2. Annie

    Mary, I love your blog! I am a fairly new reader. Because of you, I have started tracking in the woods near my home and even taken pix of the tracks to try to figure out what made them. I used to do lots of tracking in Montana in the 70’s, as my partner was a naturalist and a hunter and I often accompanied him. I’ve lived in the east since graduate school, taught kindergarten, and dropped most of the woods/creature exploring. Since retiring, I’ve followed your blog. It’s helped me get out of bed in the morning and get outside to observe and enjoy. Our new puppy is helping too – I’ve always wanted to explore and hike with a dog!

    March 17, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    • I find, not that I often need an excuse, my dog Emma gets me up and out on a daily basis, and even finds post subjects on her own once in a while!

      March 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm

  3. Thanks for this post Mary. I too wondered about the survival chances of my first red-wing siting of the season, a lone male, right here in my back yard at the suet feeder. It prompted me to say out loud (though no one was here but me and the dogs) “Now there’s a sign of spring!” The temps were warmish (Saturday morning) but as you know they’ve dropped drastically since. And with all the heavy, packed snow and ice cover I was worried about him. I’ve not seen or heard him since but after reading this, I trust he will be okay!

    March 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    • There’s nothing like that first red-wing song of the year, is there, Susan?

      March 17, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  4. Still awaiting my first redwing of spring – any day now I hope!

    March 17, 2014 at 6:22 pm

  5. Marvin Elliott

    Mary, I love this Red-wing picture. They are all around us yet just as the camera is about to click they somehow know to move. You got this one perfectly. Thanks for sharing it and all the others. Marv   Marvin Elliott Vermont Birdhouses and Wood Products Rutland Town, VT 802-775-2415

    March 18, 2014 at 11:51 am

    • Thank you so much, Marv! I won’t tell you how many hours went into getting that photograph!

      March 18, 2014 at 4:47 pm

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