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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: The red-winged blackbird

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>The red feathers on this bird’s “shoulders” are actually growing on its “wrists.”  Note how the feathers on the bird’s wings have a shiny iridescent-green sheen in the direct sunlight.

    Bill Danielson photo
    The red feathers on this bird’s “shoulders” are actually growing on its “wrists.” Note how the feathers on the bird’s wings have a shiny iridescent-green sheen in the direct sunlight.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>The red feathers on this bird’s “shoulders” are actually growing on its “wrists.”  Note how the feathers on the bird’s wings have a shiny iridescent-green sheen in the direct sunlight.

Springtime is finally here and even though Mother Nature may still have a few tricks up her sleeve, we can finally start to feel the change of the seasons. The days are gradually getting longer and with the increase in light, the temperatures are gradually getting warmer. I’ve seen skunk cabbage leaves starting to poke out of the ground here and there, which means the growing season is underway. Before long, the lakes and ponds of our area will come to life.

One of the most cheerful and easily recognizable birds of the springtime is the red-winged blackbird. This species stands out because of the dramatic contrast in the color of its feathers. Male red-winged blackbirds have shiny black feathers that cover almost all of their bodies. Seen in the right light, these feathers have a green iridescent sheen to them, but most of the time they look as black as midnight.

Against this beautiful black background there are two dramatic patches of color that really stand out. In the spots that might look like shoulders on a person, male red-winged blackbirds have beautiful patches of orange-red feathers trimmed with goldenrod yellow along the bottom edge. Clearly, these are the feathers that help to give the species its name.

But what you might not realize is the fact that these feathers are not on the bird’s shoulders at all. It turns out that the anatomy of a bird’s wings is a little trickier than it may first appear. If you were to touch your left shoulder with the fingers of your left hand you would see that your left wrist would be at the same level as your shoulder. Well, the red feathers are growing in the same “wrist” area on a red-winged blackbird. This is why the patches extend so far from the bird’s body when it stretches out its wings and flies.

There is one interesting problem when it comes to the name of this bird. It turns out that female red-winged blackbirds have no red on their wings, or black on their bodies. Instead, the females are more of a chocolate-brown streaked with whitish-brown highlights. Red-winged blackbirds exhibit something called sexual dimorphism, which means that the males and females look different from one another. The question is this: can you imagine why this might be?

Well, if you said that the females have to be able to hide when they sit on their nests, then you’re correct. Female red-winged blackbirds love to nest in cattail marshes where they weave their nests out of cattail leaves. Sometimes these nests are actually suspended over water that is quite deep. They do this to keep their eggs safe from predators that might otherwise be able to walk through the cattails and look for a quick meal.

But lots of other birds live around cattail marshes and some of them would happily eat blackbird eggs if they could find them. So, female red-winged blackbirds have brown feathers to help them blend in to the background of the browns of dead cattail leaves. If a female can sneak onto her nest and sit quietly while the male spends a lot of time singing and flapping around, then she can sometimes just “disappear.”

I’d love to see some artwork from anyone who is excited that spring is finally here. To make a nice picture of a red-winged blackbird, you’ll need some black, red, yellow, green and brown. Try using the photograph as a model for your picture, but see if you can change the background. Is your bird singing from a cattail? Is your bird perched in a bush? Is your bird singing? You decide, then send it in and maybe we’ll be able to print it in the paper.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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