Foam Lake Birding No. 14

No. 14
When one visits a body of water, such as a slough, usually, the first bird to appear is the Red Winged Blackbird. It is a bird of the marshes, but unlike its larger cousin, the Yellow Headed Blackbird, the Redwing does not require a large body of water – any small slough will do. Nesting takes place over water in reeds and cattails. During breeding season, the Redwings are very territorial with each pair requiring about an acre or so of marsh in which to nest and raise its young. Like the Brewer’s blackbird, it harasses intruders energetically.
After fledging, young and mature Redwings may congregate in huge flocks in preparation for fall migration. In the past, Redwings were considered to be the most populous of North American birds. With the draining of wetlands, this may no longer be the case, however, there still are oodles of them around. Even though, their diet is comprised mainly of insects, worms and grubs, they do like to eat grain – especially oats! An infestation of Redwings in an oat field can cause some serious harm to a farmer’s bottom line. Because of their large populations and for ethical reasons, removal or extermination is impossible. Scare tactics, such as automatically fired field (noise) cannons, work very well. These devices also keep other “uninvited guests” away. On their wintering grounds, they like to frequent bird feeders to the point where they become a nuisance.
. During the winter, they can be found throughout the USA, northern Mexico and some parts of southern Canada. One can get the impression that they are more or less resident. In fact, Redwings are migratory, but their migration patterns are interesting – like musical chairs. Birds from Canada fly to the northern US; birds from the northern US fly to the southern US; birds from the southern US fly to Mexico. The bulk of them do end up in Mexico, however.
This near Robin-sized bird is quite distinctive and should not be confused with any other bird around here. A male Red Winged sports a bright orange-red shoulder patch (hence its name) bordered by a yellow stripe (bar). When perched, the Redwing usually conceals its red patch with only the yellow bar being clearly visible, as shown in this week’s photo. It will show off its red patches during courtship display, but it is best seen when the bird is in flight and they are always exposed. The female is striped dark brown and tan, and looks like a large sparrow.
Those of you with bird books will have noticed that there are two other “Red Winged” blackbirds listed. One has a red patch, but with no yellow (or white) bar. This one is simply a form, or colour phase, of the same bird we have here, and occurs only in California. The other, the Tricoloured Blackbird, is an entirely different species, but looks identical in every way-almost. Tricoloureds have a dark red shoulder patch (not orange-red) bordered by a white bar–usually. Otherwise, the birds are inseparable. To really make things more difficult, the colour differences in the patches and bars of the two species can vary enough to overlap! How can they be separated? First, the Tricoloured is a California resident that occurs in isolated spots in Arizona and Oregon. Second, blackbirds, as a group, are horrible singers, but our Redwing is more musical than most, but most definitely not a contender for American Idol! Third, the Redwings are territorial nesters; while, the Tricoloureds are social and nest in colonies. The reason for my going into so much detail about two birds from California is to emphasize the need to avoid identifying birds by colour alone. An acquaintance of mine claims to this day that he had seen a Tricoloured Blackbird in his slough based on his observation that the normally yellow wing bars were white! What he had seen was a Redwing with washed out bars. If a bird is identified as a species that occurs many kilometres away, then in all likelihood the bird has been misidentified. Look for something else that is similar and occurs regularly around here. Always think colour variation. Rare birds, especially highly migratory ones, do occasionally stray far from their normal ranges; resident ones do not. Birding ethics (yes, there are such things) require that a sighting of a rare bird be confirmed by witnesses and, if possible, by photographs. Otherwise, it never happened. I will probably be dealing with this in future