Red-winged Blackbirds

Jen McGruter, Environmental Educator

How many of you evening park visitors out there have been witness to this lately? The seemingly chaotic, loud chatter you hear high in the trees above the wetlands just so happens to be the evening return of our beloved Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). The sight of the every-morning mass exodus of this species is just as enthralling to watch as well, if you ever get the chance to come to the nature park closer to sunrise.

Every day these birds leave their roosting spots in the wetland grasses and shrubs in search of better foraging grounds for the day, sometimes traveling up to 50 miles away! Each string of birds in flight almost seems like one of the most coordinated events that you might ever see in your life, almost as if the Marching Band Leader has given the signal and every single individual thereafter knows exactly when to take flight and follow along in the miles-long parade. And there seems to be just one parade after the other for what seems like forever. We estimated there to be about 3,500 band members in the multitude of parades the morning of our Christmas Bird Count last month!

I imagine the heeds of birds split off to take advantage of different foraging areas throughout the state, but when leaving the nature park they all seem to be heading in the same direction – West to Southwest. I’ve even spotted one of the parades marching high in the sky above the town of Hephzibah around 7:30am on my way to take my son to school. If they are traveling in that direction up to 50 miles away, they could be flying all the way to Macon, GA (by my uncanny estimation of straight flight distance on googlemaps) and back again every single day!

This time of year Red-winged Blackbirds are known to forage on ‘weedy seeds,’ like ragweed and cocklebur, but at the nature park they seem to love the sweetgum balls still hanging from the American Sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). The last time I walked down the sidewalk from the campus buildings toward the front parking lot and passed a sweetgum tree with a slurry of Red-winged Blackbirds hanging out above me, I had to stop a moment. It took me a long minute to realize that it wasn’t beginning to rain and that the sound I was hearing, that sounded almost exactly like rain drops falling in forest, was just the falling of leftover seed trash uneaten by the birds overhead. Yet another amazing, mind-blowing experience that the birds have given me! Oh, how I love the gifts of nature.

For anyone that hasn’t experienced the amazingness of our Red-winged Blackbird population here at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, I encourage you to find the time to take a walk in the early morning or late afternoon to take part. These birds, just like many, are just wonderful!