Chicago Bird of the Week: Red-winged Blackbird

Chicago Bird of the Week: Red-winged Blackbird
Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette.

Red-winged blackbirds are one of Chicago's most common avian species. They're beautiful, but appearances don't matter when they're dive-bombing your head.

"People have complained of being chased for up to 100 yards, pecked in the head, and [having] their hair clawed," said a Telegraph report on Chicago after a spate of incidents along the lakeshore path.

Agelaius phoeniceus males are ferociously protective of their nests, and actually prefer to sneak up on perceived intruders from behind, meaning you probably won't even see them coming if you wander too close to their homes. Injuries are rare, but the experience can be a bit startling for the unsuspecting, and accidents can occur when the birds attack bicyclers. The Lincoln Park Zoo often places warning signs around their ponds: "Red-winged Blackbirds in the Area. Walk Around."

To be fair, most of us in Chicago have encountered Red-winged blackbirds without any problems. The birds are beautiful, sing a lovely song, and perform a large and important role in the region's ecology. But the "dive-bombing" attacks aren't exaggerations.

Here's video proof of the Red-winged's tenacity, although the one featured here seems pretty polite compared to the horror stories in some of the articles above:

But if you're attacked by one of the territorial creatures, don't fight back. It'll cost you $250,000 and two years in prison, according to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

What They Do
Red-wingeds thrive throughout North and Central America, but most of them spend their summers north of the Mason-Dixon line and then migrate to the Southern United States and Mexico come winter.

The iconic black-feathered males with red shoulders are one of the easiest birds to identify in the field, but the females, with brown ruddy streaks, are a little harder to spot, and can be difficult to differentiate from other female passerines.

They mostly eat seeds and bits of grain, but munch on insects, frogs, and snails whenever they can.

The species is also extremely sexually promiscuous, with most males mating with and defending 10 or so females at a time.

What They Sound Like
You can't visit Chicago's lakeshore in the summer without hearing the male Red-winged blackbird's high-pitched, vibrating whistles. It's typically three syllables (ok-la-REEEEEEEEE), with an emphasis on the final trill.

Here's a more detailed, fascinating look at the blackbird's range of alarm calls.

Where to Find Them
All of Chicago's lakefront parks are brimming with blackbirds, but you can also find them in grassy areas further inland like prairies and meadows, especially near bodies of water (they have a love affair with cattails).

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    Adam Morgan

    Adam Morgan is an outdoors author at Falcon Guides, an award-winning screenwriter at Fox, a blogger at the Tribune Company, a literary magazine editor, copyeditor, backpacker, and explorer. His book, Best Hikes Near Chicago, was published in 2011. He has written and contributed to Publishers Weekly, Bookslut, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and served as editor-in-chief of The Lincoln Park Times in 2011 and Oyez Review in 2010. His script, "Liberal Arts", won grand prize at the New York Television Festival in 2009, and is currently in development at Fox. He also blogs at MountHelicon.blogspot.com.

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