Building in the Wetlands has Begun!

by Barbara Walvoord

(from Lathrop Lamp Post of March 16, 2017)

At Lathrop, we human residents are mapping and flagging our wetlands so as NOT to build on them.  If our plans involve wetlands, our town Conservation Commissions, backed by state and local laws, will require us to submit descriptions and diagrams, notify abutters, post a notice in the newspaper, and appear at a hearing.

Meanwhile, ignoring the flags and the paperwork, Lathrop’s red-winged blackbirds, early harbingers of spring, newly returned from wintering in the south, are busy building their homes in our wetlands.

red-winged blackbird. By Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Red-winged Blackbird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48262749.

The nest is what Habitat for Humanity would call a “woman build.”  The nest site is low to the ground or water surface, among clustered stems of plants like cattails, alder, goldenrod, or blackberry.  Our builder weaves stringy plant material around several close, upright stems to make a platform.  Around and over this, she adds more wet leaves and decayed wood.  She plasters the inside with mud to make a cup and lines the cup with fine, dry grasses. In one study, a nest contained 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/lifehistory).

As many as 15 females may nest in one male’s territory (and yes, he gets to mate with them all, though DNA studies show that some of the kids are sired by somebody else).

While the women are doing all this building and, ahem, other activity, the male (when he’s not engaged in other activity) is perched on a cattail, singing away.  It’s no happy Sunday music program, however;  the lyrics are “stay out!”  Males may spend up to a quarter of their time defending their territory from rivals and predators, sometimes even going after horses and people.

Between 1966 and 2014, red-winged blackbird populations declined 30%.  So we humans need to do all we can to NOT build in our wetlands and to nurture the native plants that best support the insects these birds need.  Then, at Lathrop, our wetland homebuilders can continue to sing not only, “stay out” to rivals and predators, but “spring is here!” to our waiting hearts.

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