They're back – the harbingers of spring! No, not robins. Red-winged blackbirds. On a snowy day at the end of February, I saw two males perched in a small marsh lifting their heads up in the air to scream, “Onkalee.” That three-syllable song is the mating call of the red-winged blackbird – and this is one of the earliest migratory species to arrive in Illinois, including Lake County.
A colorful bird that lights up the dingy look of bent-over cattails, the red-winged blackbird typifies its name. The jet-black, robin-sized bird has what are called red epaulets – patches on the wing – and if you look through binoculars you can also see a smaller patch of yellow on the red.
The males arrive first by middle to late February in Lake county. Each one is searching for a place, usually a cattail marsh, where they can woo the later-arriving females. You hardly notice the females when they return. They look nothing like the males. Their mottled brown plumage helps them hide in nests they build in the cattails. They remain low while the males continue to declare their harsh sounds hoping a female will choose them.
Though most red-winged blackbirds nested in marshes in the early 20th century, they have expanded to breed in grasslands and fields with scattered shrubs, cultivated cropland edges and even wet ditches or grassy areas along highways.
Certainly anyone driving through Lake County past one of these types of spaces will glimpse a red-winged blackbird perched atop a reed, cattail or grassy stalk this time of year and throughout March, until the females arrive and the couple settles into the life of raising a family.
The female weaves an open cup nest of dried cattail leaves and grass blades and lines it with fine grass. She incubates three to four eggs for 10 to 12 days – and that's when the joy of seeing a red-winged blackbird back in spring begins to fade.
Males are extremely territorial, especially when the female is sitting on eggs. I have heard stories of bikers getting attacked by a red-winged blackbird while riding through a forest preserve or even along a row of trees next to a highway. The male dive bombs the intruder, squawking at it to leave. Rarely will it hit you, but there have been times when I've been out doing breeding bird surveys and thought I needed a bike helmet for safety from the blackbirds.
When I do breeding bird surveys, I stand for 10 minutes at one point along a trail and list all the birds I see and hear. If I happen to be standing next to a red-winged blackbird nest, the male will not leave me alone – and sometimes the birds nest in loose colonies – meaning there's more than one blackbird squawking at me while I try to pretend I'm not scared. Screaming at them doesn't help a bit, so the best thing to do, I've learned, is to just stand still and then slowly leave.
I do enjoy the beauty of a red-winged blackbird as it shows off its colorful epaulets and puffs its entire body to declare that he's the boss.
And, this time of year, I can't help but marvel at the bird's tenacity sitting on its territory with snowflakes hitting its plumage.
Come summer, red-winged blackbirds will gather in flocks to feed in grasslands and crop fields snatching up grasshoppers, waste grain and bugs.
One year, I saw hundreds upon hundreds of male and female red-winged blackbirds dipping in synchrony to a field where they landed and began feeding. There was a beauty to this scene, as all the red epaulets seemed to be blurred like an abstract painting among a black background.
While other bird species are declining, the red-winged blackbird is one native Illinois bird that's thriving. If you need a spring lift amid the cold and snow, start looking for red-winged blackbirds. Seeing them can brighten a March day.