Of Blackbirds and Spring

A handful of us homeys spend a couple dozen winter and spring hours – and parts of a few days – thinking about wildlife habitat. A lot of that planning and thinking effort relates to wetlands and the waterfowl and hundreds of other species relying on them to survive. On some sunny, breezy day each early spring, I make it a point to meander around the ponds and marshes of Paradise with a window down and my rig idling quietly along. I am always reminded of the other reason I focus energy on wetland habitat.

I expect it, yet I am always surprised when I first hear that gurgling, almost metallic, conk-a-ree, conk-a-ree, as some red-winged blackbird male declares his turf out in the cattails. “Here,” he promises, “I will do my best to make more blackbirds, that they may somehow always return spring to Paradise.”

These birds are icons of our marshes, really. You’ve no doubt noticed them, and have perhaps even spent several minutes lost in some primeval ritual of sight and sound before it dawned on you that you were watching them. These are the days of our red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.

The flashy birds are easy to spot among cattails and bullrushes all over eastern Washington. With a little patience, you can begin to identify their calls and locations within a marsh. The early call of red-headed males is a rather harsh check and a high tee-eek, while its classic conk-a-ree becomes the common ringing call through summer. The yellow-headed boys use a low kruck and several growling sounds, but the more common call over the next few months will be a few musical notes followed by a screeching, buzzing, gunk-eeee (often described as the sound of opening a rusty gate). Males of both species will be singing from any high spot around the marsh.

The males arrived in January or February, from as far south as Costa Rica, to stake out territories prime enough to attract a handful of the females now in the marshes.

Courtship displays are still in play. You may see a red-winged male drop his wings, showing off his red and yellow shoulder patches. He will tip forward, spread its tail, and sing. Researchers have likened those colorful shoulder patches to “sergeant’s stripes,” signifying rank and social order. Numerous experiments and observations indicate that males with smaller (or dyed) wing patches are routinely run off nesting territories by other males. Red-winged displays and battles will be almost exclusively around the shallow edges of marshes and wetlands.

At the same time, out over deeper water (to about four feet), the yellow-headed male will stand with his body thrust upward, showing off his yellow head and upper chest, while tipping forward, spreading his tail, and singing with wings half open.

By now, territories are well staked out, and most females will have agreed to play house (nest?) with a particular male. Dominant males of both species may have several mates within their territories. The females, mostly brown and drab, will build their nests in the cattails or bulrushes. Nests will be built in emergent vegetation, firmly woven of bulky wet vegetation, then lined with dried grass. As the nests dry, they shrink and tighten into place.

Making more blackbirds is not always easy. Nests of both our blackbirds are common drops for eggs of the parasitizing and pesky cowbird, which lets other species rear its young. Nests and eggs of the yellow-headed birds are sometimes destroyed by marsh wrens, but fortunately (Bird Whisperer Deborah Essman tells me) there are few marsh wrens in our part of Paradise.

The female red‑winged will lay three or four blue‑green eggs, streaked with purple. The three to five eggs of the yellow-headed female are gray to greenish‑white, marked with brown or gray.  Females are totally responsible for the twelve days of incubation. Males will generally sit nearby, singing their loud songs (red-headed’s gurgling conk-a-ree, and yellow-headed’s rusty-gate gunk-eeeee), and protecting the nest territory. If time and conditions permit, the red-winged may produce three broods a year, ensuring that they remain one of the most populous bird in North America. The yellow-headed may produce two sets of fledglings.

In late September, our blackbirds will join starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and others in one or another of those large undulating flocks working their way back to Central America. Those flocks may contain a quarter million birds – but who’s counting?

The Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee requires scientific names. Red‑winged  is Agelaius phoeniceus and the yellow-headed is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Both species make their livings on insects, spiders, grass and other seeds, along with some fruits. For more info, including research and observation projects, see The Birder’s Handbook, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. Any good field guide is worth the reading. Of course, you will find great photos and research online; start with Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab at

Take your ears, eyes, optics and cameras to the cattails and bulrushes. Immerse yourself. Be inspired by the taste and sounds of spring in Paradise.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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Comments (1)

  • K,Matney
    May 8, 2018 at 11:22 pm |

    Always one of my favorite sounds of spring. Saw a male redwing fluttering and displaying on a fence post by Naneum creek last night. Thanks for another wonderful article, Jim.

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