Wednesday, Jan 15 2014 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: The Song of the Wetland: Red-winged Blackbirds

Related Photos

There is a small pale yellow wingbar located underneath the prominent red shoulder patch. Photo by Jon Hammond.

A male Red-winged Blackbird flies over water. These birds prefer wetland habitats. Photo by Jon Hammond

Male and female Redwings forage along the shore of Brite Lake in the winter. Photo by Jon Hammond

A male Red-winged Blackbird takes flight, with his red shoulder patches clearly in evidence. Photo by Jon Hammond

There are some birds in the Tehachapi Mountains that you might hear more often than you see them. Great Horned Owls hooting at night are an obvious example of this, but there are a number of others, including the common Red-winged Blackbirds, which love to spend time in wetlands where there are cattails or tules. Perched among these shoreline plants, Red-winged Blackbirds can be hard to see, but you can hear their distinctive warbling calls rising up from the reeds.

Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are not the numerous species of blackbird that we have in our area -- that distinction belongs to the widespread Brewer's Blackbird -- but they tend to be found wherever there is a body of water, however small: lake, reservoir, pond or sump. Their common name comes from the attractive red shoulder patches or epaulets found on the males. These distinctive crimson markings are even more noticeable in flight. There is also a pale yellow wingbar underneath the red badge that can often be seen when male Redwings are perched. Females are mostly brownish and unadorned, to keep from attracting the attention of predators when the birds are nesting.

In addition to their handsome red shoulder patch, another identifying feature of Red-winged Blackbirds is their liquid-sounding call. Male Redwings seem to love attention, and they will sing all day long. There have been many different attempts to render their call into written form, such as conk-la-ree!, or terrr-eeeeee, or even oo-PREEEEE-oomm. The Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indians of the Tehachapi Mountains gave the Red-winged Blackbird the onomatopoetic name Wo-ko-LEE-ib, as an approximation of the sound they make. There is a great website called "" maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and you can visit and hear recordings of all kinds of North American birds, including Redwings.

Redwings are sociable birds that are generally found in the company of other birds of their kind -- or even birds not of their own kind, but similar. Blackbirds of different species often forage together, especially during the winter months, and it is not uncommon to see large mixed flocks containing Red-winged Blackbirds, Brewer's Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and perhaps Tri-colored Blackbirds or even Starlings or Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Redwings get most of their nutrition from plant material like seeds during the winter, and from eating insects during the warmer months. They prefer to nest in marshy areas among the cattails and tules, and males will vigorously defend their nesting territories from other intruders and predators, even dive bombing horses or people if the Red-winged Blackbird male feels these large visitors pose a threat to their nest.

Unlike many bird species, Redwings are thriving and are thought by some people to be the most abundant native bird in America, with more than 150 million individuals. They are not as numerous in the Tehachapi Mountains as they are in wetter areas with large tracts of marshy habitat, but they are still common wherever there are wetlands, and their cheerful liquidy call is a pleasure to hear.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

Photos by John Hammond

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