The kon-ke-ree song of the male Red-winged Blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way. This bird is familiar to most Tennesseans because it is very common, found in the state year round, and the males are easy to identify and often sing from prominent perches. The females, on the other hand, might be mistaken for a large sparrow by novice birdwatchers. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in shrubby swamps, grasslands, and in the cattails around farm ponds. In the winter, they gather with other blackbird species in enormous roosts that can number in the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of birds. Their breeding range covers most of Canada and the United States and extends south to southern Mexico. Most Canadian nesters spend the winter in the lower 48 states.
Description: The male and female look very different, but both have sharply pointed bills and rounded wings in flight. The male is completely black with a red shoulder patch edged in yellow; the female is brown and heavily streaked with a lighter stripe over the eye.
Weight: 1.8 oz
Voice: The song has several liquid introductory notes, followed by a gurgling, harsh kon-ke-ree, ending with a trill. Calls include a dry kek, and a clear descending zeer given by the male.
- Female Red-winged Blackbirds resemble sparrows but are much larger, and have a bill that is longer and more pointed than a sparrow's bill.
Habitat: Marshes and grassy fields, often near water.
Diet: Insects, seeds, and grain.
Nesting and reproduction: Male Red-winged Blackbirds are polygynous, and may have several female mates in their territory. Males start defending territories in March and peak egg-laying is in late April. Females usually raise one brood per season.
Clutch Size: The range is from 2 to 5 eggs, with 3 or 4 most common.
Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 10 to 12 days.
Fledging: The female does most of the feeding with some help from the male. Chicks fledge in 10 to 14 days and are independent in 2 to 3 weeks.
Nest: Females choose the nest site and construct the nest in 3 to 6 days. It is a fairly large open cup woven of grass or marsh vegetation and wet leaves, and lined with fine grass. Early nests are often placed in clumps of cattails, later nests in shrubs, and small trees. The average nest height in Tennessee is 3 feet above the ground.
Status in Tennessee: The Red-winged Blackbird is a common to abundant permanent resident at all but the highest elevations across the state. In winter, birds nesting to the north of Tennessee join the local population and form large roosts numbering in the thousands, especially in West and Middle Tennessee. Red-winged Blackbirds are declining rangewide and in Tennessee as well.
Dynamic map of Red-winged Blackbird eBird observations in Tennessee
- In the wild, Red-winged Blackbirds live 2 years, on average. The oldest recorded Red-winged Blackbird in the wild lived 15 years and 9 months.
- In some populations, 90% of territorial males have more than one female mate; the record is 15 females nesting in the territory of one male. However, studies have found that a quarter to a half of the nestlings will be fathered by other than the territorial male.
- In winter, Red-winged Blackbirds can form huge roosts of several million birds, which congregate in the evening and spread out each morning. Some may travel as far as 50 miles between the roosting and feeding sites. They commonly share their winter roosts with other blackbird species and European Starlings.
- Across the broad breeding range, Red-winged Blackbirds vary substantially in size. In an experiment where young were switched from different-sized populations, the young grew up to resemble their foster parents, not their natural parents. This indicates that environmental factors, not genetics, are responsible for much of the variation in size between populations.
Obsolete English Names: bicolored, red and buff shouldered, red-shouldered, blackbird, redwing, crimson-winged troopial, red-and-black-shouldered marsh blackbird, red-winged starling, red-shouldered marsh blackbird
Best places to see in Tennessee: Red-winged Blackbirds are common to abundant statewide. They are the most abundant species nesting at Reelfoot Lake, and are one of the most common birds in agricultural landscapes.
For more information:
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of TN Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Yasukawa, K. and W. A. Searcy. 1995. Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), The Birds of North America, No.184 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.