Evelyn Williams, Certified Naturalist and Volunteer Guide
Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager
During the fall and winter months one of our the most frequent sightings in the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge marsh is of Red-winged Blackbirds sitting on grasses or making short, low flights in small flocks from plant to plant. Male red-winged blackbirds have black, glossy feathers with red and yellow shoulder patches on their wings. Females are a streaky brown color.
Red-winged Blackbirds are year round residents in this area. In the winter, Red-winged Blackbirds may also be seen flying as part of huge mixed flocks of over a million birds. These enormous flocks also contain Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings. The flocks roost together at night in marshes and then head out to forage for food during the day. The Delaware Bay region is known as a huge staging area for blackbirds in the fall and spring. In fact, most of the entire northeastern North American population of these species stop in the Bay area…over 500 million birds. (Birds of Delaware, Blackbird Roosts in Delaware. J.T. Linehan. pp. 523-4). Watching these enormous flocks flying overhead is a sight to behold, and really one of the greatest natural spectacles in Delaware. Listen as they go overhead, and hear the loud “whoosh” as the huge flocks drift past like smoke. Just don’t open your mouth when you look up!
Some people think of these blackbirds as “ugly” or “dirty”. Take another look at the individuals. Grackles and Starlings have beautiful glossy plumage with an iridescence that changes with the light. Who can deny the brilliant splash of red and yellow on a Red-winged Blackbird’s shoulder? Appreciate them as adaptable beneficiaries of landscapes altered by human beings; allow yourself to be wowed by their impressive flights; take a finer look at a nearby individual and open your eyes to their subtle beauty.
In winter, Red-winged Blackbirds may fly 40 miles from their night-roosts in Delaware Bay marshes in search of food. They seek out agricultural areas where they try to gorge on spent corn, as well as a wide range of weed seeds and any insects they can get on the ground.
Red-winged blackbirds are at home in the treeless environment of the marshes at the Dupont Environmental Education Center (DEEC) and perch during the daytime in grasses and cattails. When spring comes they will nest low among the new shoots of these same marsh plants. Come out to DEEC and see if you can find a few, or a few thousand!