Facts About Red-winged Blackbirds

The red-winged blackbird is one of the most abundant of all songbirds in North America.

The red-wing's scientific name is Agelaius phoeniceus. Agelaius comes from the Greek word "agelaios" which means "flocking." Phoeniceus comes from the Greek word "phoinikeos" for "red," because ancient Phoenicians brought to Greece red dye that they made from shellfish.

The oldest known painting of a Red-winged Blackbird, by Mark Catesby
Copyright © Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
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Painting by Mark Catesby,copyright by Board of Regents, Univesity of Wisconsin

The first known painting of a red-winged blackbird was published by Mark Catesby in 1754. Carolus Linnaeus, the famous Swedish scientist who invented scientific names, gave the red-winged blackbird its scientific name in 1766, based on Catesby's painting.

Red-winged blackbirds belong to the family Icteridae, which includes bobolinks, meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, grackles, and other blackbirds. "Ikteros" means "jaundice" (a liver disease making people's skin turn yellowish) in Greek, and many of the birds in this family are yellow.

Some people call American blackbirds "troupials," which comes from the French word "troupe" for their habit of flocking.

American blackbirds are not related to European blackbirds. In "Sing a Song of Sixpence," the "four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" were English blackbirds, closely related to our American robin! In the days when people ate songbirds, red-winged blackbirds didn't taste as good as robins, because robins and other thrushes, like the English blackbird, eat more fruit. People really did used to bake songbirds in pies, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made that illegal in 1918.

Redwings change their diets with the season. During the breeding season they eat mostly insects. As the babies fledge, the birds switch to eating more and more seeds, and can become problems for farmers. During winter, they eat almost entirely seeds. As they switch, the size of their muscular stomach (their gizzard), switches too, getting bigger and thicker to grind seeds in late summer, and shrinking as they eat more insects in spring. Over the course of a year, their diet is about 73% plant and 27% animal.

Male redwings weigh about 2 1/2 ounces. Females weigh about 1 1/2 ounces.

Their body temperature is about 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

Like all songbirds, redwings have four toes on each foot. One of the toes faces backward (the hindtoe) and the other three face forward.

The oldest banded wild red-winged blackbird known survived for 15 years 9 months.

Female redwings are mature when a year old. They have brown plumage, and look like oversized sparrows. Males don't have glossy black and red plumage until they are two or even three years old. They usually try to establish a breeding territory starting when they are one year old, but females are more interested in the older males with brighter plumage--these are the males with the most experience, who are most likely to help them raise babies successfully.

Redwings have excellent vision and hearing--probably better than ours. But they have a poor sense of smell.

Sometimes redwings attack red things near their territory. They will fly at and sometimes even bonk people wearing red hats or shirts if they enter a redwing's territory.

Redwings fly about 17-28 m.p.h.

Redwings build their nest on the ground or not too far above water level in marshes. The nest is cup-shaped. The female lays 3-5 eggs, usually four, in a clutch. The eggs are pale blue-green, spotted or with zig-zagging lines of black, purple, or brown. After the first brood leaves, the female often renests. She incubates the eggs for 11-12 days. After the babies hatch, they stay in the nest for about 10 days. Babies leave the nest and climb on cattails before they can fly.

Sometimes the baby blackbirds fall into the water. They can swim a little to get hold of a cattail and climb out, but they're sometimes eaten by water snakes, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, and some fish.

Redwings usually first mate in late March or April, and remain on their nesting territory until July.

Redwings breed from the Yukon across Canada, and south to Baja California, Costa Rica, Cuba and the Bahamas. They withdraw from the northern part of their range in winter, and a great many center on the southern and central states, where they are especially abundant on farms.