Red Winged Blackbirds: Marking Territory

by Barbara Walvoord

Blue flags mark Lathrop’s wetland territories, as part of our long-range planning.  But territories are also being marked by red-winged blackbird males, back from their winter migration, arriving ahead of the females.

When a male red-winged blackbird perches atop a bough or cattail, flashes his red shoulder patches, and sings out conkaREEEE, he is not fluting a joyful “tra-la-la spring is here,” nor a seductive “come live with me and be my love.”  Rather, he is growling to other males, “This is my territory, so get the hell out.”

Our red-winged blackbird is among the 2% of birds who are not monogamous.  He will mate with however many  females he can attract to his territory, and it’s the real estate they look at, not the red patches or the song.

So what do they want, these picky females? Cover, seeds, and bugs. Native plants such as cattails provide the type of cover these native birds have evolved to use, and native plants support the protein-rich bugs that baby birds need.  When alien plants like multiflora rose, purple loosestrife, or shrub honeysuckle  take over a wetland, wildlife diversity declines.

In a healthy meadow or wetland, a male may have up to 15 females in his territory,  sitting on their mud-and-grass nests.  (Truth to tell, some of those chicks may have been fathered by nearby poaching males.) 

Our blue flags mark the wetlands where , if we protect the native habitat,  our red-winged blackbirds can  growl, nest, mate, poach,  feed their young, and delight our hearts as they return to our land in spring.

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