It is generally believed that the Red-winged Blackbird is one of the most numerous land bird in North America. Those of us living in the Arrow Lakes valley may find this hard to believe since it is not particularly numerous around here. Generally, we see small flocks during the spring migration, perhaps a few through the summer and then another small influx during fall migration. Once in a while, a few will remain through the winter. Most blackbirds migrate to the southern parts of the US during winter, and the Red-wing is no exception. During the annual Christmas Bird Count, flocks numbering in the millions are reported in Louisiana and eastern Texas.
Red-winged Blackbirds nest primarily in marshes. Nests are built of grasses and stems and are generally attached to the strong stems of bulrushes or cattails. There is not a great deal of this habitat in our immediate area which accounts for the relatively small number of Red-wings seen here during the summer months. There is some good marsh habitat at the north end of Slocan Lake and also at the east end of Summit Lake. Red-wings are nesting in each of these locations. Often, the species nests in colonies which may contain several hundred birds. Their mating strategy is not the traditional one male, one female approach. One male may mate with several females and stay and defend the territory of all the nests. Females may also have multiple partners. When large extensive marshes are not available, Red-winged Blackbirds will sometimes make use of small wetlands such as ponds or even wet ditches. They may also utilise emergent vegetation that grows around the edge of larger lakes.
In the last four or five years, the small pond on the Nakusp Golf Course has attracted this species. Each year one or two males and five or six females breed around the edges of the pond. The males arrive first and establish territory. The females arrive later at various times. Each female apparently begins breeding soon after arrival. As a result of their staggered arrival times, egg-laying and hatching is also staggered. At one point last year, I noticed that one brood of young had already hatched and the young were clumsily flying about. But other nests still contained young, still others contained eggs, and one female was observed still building a nest! During my visit, the males vigorously defended the territory as I walked around the pond. Clearly the two males had an interest in all the females and their nests.
As the name suggests, the male Red-winged Blackbird has red in its wings. The red patch, on the inner half of the wing, is often barely visible on a perched bird. It becomes very obvious when it flies, however. When defending territory, or trying to attract a female, posture is adjusted so that the red is prominently displayed for all to see! Other than the red patch with its narrow yellowish border, the bird is entirely black. Females look quite different. Their plumage is basically brown with extensive heavy streaking, making it look more like a sparrow than a blackbird.