Slog, slog, slog. Step by step I plodded through the deep mud of the calving corral, pushing a stumbling newborn calf and his mother through the falling snow into the barn where the baby could get dry and nurse. I was wearing the same coveralls that I’d worn all week while wallowing in the manure-laden mud. My nose was not only dribbling but sticky where I’d swiped at it with a muddy glove. My hair itched, sticking to my skull under the two stocking caps. Snowflakes caked my glasses. That spring a few years ago, we were only a week into calving season. The forecast said snow would continue for several more days.
The wolf whistle was so loud I nearly sprained my neck looking around.
The whistle sounded again, raucous and confident. The law school boys sounded the same when I walked past them on my way to class fifteen years and a dozen pounds before. I turned my head and spotted the whistler, a black bird with red and gold epaulets.
My spine straightened and I smiled. Spring would come, and here was the proof: the first red-winged blackbird of the season.
Just as our patience with winter wears thin, we’ll see one of the birds for a day or two. Then it vanishes and a couple of days later the main flock arrives.
That early arrival and that wolf whistle are two reasons the red-winged blackbird is my favorite prairie bird. (I’m not counting the birds of prey like owls, hawks, and eagles. They are in a category of their own– but they don’t cheer me with whistles.)
For years, I’d be trudging through calving season on the ranch, and the first bird to herald spring would be the red-winged blackbird– with his raucous sound.
Within a day or two of that herald’s arrival, flocks of them gather in the tops of the cottonwood trees, singing gloriously. For several days, they seem to go everywhere together, like teenage girls, squawking, chirping, singing, and flapping. After a few minutes in one tree, the whole flock WHOOSHES up with incredible precision and lands in another tree in unison. At first, the flocks are mostly males, distinguishable from all other blackbirds by those red and gold shoulders, and by their tumbling, torrential song. They are always visible, perching as high as they can– on the chimney, on electric wires, on fence posts– singing a song that’s described as “conka-la-REEEE!” When they are hungry, they fly in a raucous flock to feast on grass seed, or the delicacies found among the cattails in the gully.
The bird’s scientific name is derived from the Greek Agelaius: “belonging to a flock” and phoeniceus, meaning “dark red,” for their habits. Bird experts say that winter congregations can be several million of these birds, including other blackbird species and starlings. Each morning the flocks fly away from their roosts, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then returning at night.
And all the while they chatter. Anthropomorphizing wildly, I assume they are catching up on the migration news, commenting on the qualities of the insects and seeds they’re foraging.
Each spring one would perch on the chimney at Windbreak House Retreats and the writer in residence would always conclude that we’d been adopted as his territory. If so, we female writers were not his only conquests. The red-winged blackbird is highly polygynous, meaning that each male may have several female mates nesting inside his territory; up to 15, according to experts.
The males defend their territory aggressively against intruders, including humans and other birds. I’ve seen these redwings rise to fly above a hawk, darting in to peck and claw at its head. As the hawk flew, more males would rise from their territories to attack the predator in succession, driving him from territory to territory.
Bird-watchers say the males may spend 90 percent of their time defending their space, but fierce as they are, one-quarter to one-half of their nestlings may have been sired by a bird other than the territorial male. I could pretty easily create a story here about what modest-looking females might be up to while the males are strutting, preening and bellowing, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.
This year, we saw the first redwing on March 13. Now, a month and a half later, we don’t hear their songs so often because they have chosen territories and spread out around the homestead.
Females of the species are brown with white stripes on their backs and over each eye. They skulk in the deep grass, tending to the business of catching lunch and building nests. We are careful to leave bushes and tall grass undisturbed along the edges of fields and gullies.
To build each nest, the female selects long, stringy plants and winds them around several close, upright stems. Then she weaves plant material between the uprights to create a platform usually composed of coarse vegetation, leaves and sometimes decayed wood. She makes zillions of trips to the muddy pond to collect mud for plastering the inside of the nest. She lines this cup with slender, dry grasses. According to allaboutbirds.org, one nest picked apart by a naturalist in the 1930s had been made by weaving together 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep, and may be tucked under leaves or branches in such a way as to be protected from rain. Each female lays two to four blue-green to gray eggs with black and brown markings which hatch in about two weeks.
We knew as we moved our mowers to the alfalfa fields in June that some of the birds were nesting among the tall plants. We found it almost impossible to see their nests in time to avoid them, and sometimes vultures stalked our mowers, presumably gobbling the dead baby birds.
Still, since the redwings usually raise two broods during a season, the nests may have been empty. The birds build a new nest for each brood, possibly to keep them from being infested by parasites. However when we hayed in a field where tall willow bushes allowed me to gain privacy to relieve myself, I would just be preparing to do so when a male blackbird would dart at my face, sometimes dragging his talons through my hair.
The redwinged blackbird appears to be thriving on the grasslands, along with meadowlarks, but I worry about some of the lesser-known birds. Listening to the changes in the morning chorus today, as the meadowlarks and blackbirds sing less and spend more time building nests, I suddenly remembered the long-billed curlew.
They never appeared close to the buildings, but when I would ride into more distant pasture on a spring morning years ago, I’d see their distinctive landings. As soon as the bird’s feet touch ground, it raises long wings high, then slowly folds them down close to the body. These beautiful birds are aggressive about their nests as well. I seldom saw a nest before the bird zoomed up out of the grass flapping at my face. As I slowly backed the horses away, I’d see a hollow in the limestone on some rocky ridge with a little grass, twigs or rocks surrounding the eggs.
Where have they gone? Online information suggests that their habitat has been declining as the prairie becomes busier with subdivisions, four-wheelers and other human activities. Still, I was able to discover two sightings in my extended neighborhood– one on the grasslands along Highway 40 and another near Folsom School. So I hope that this incredible bird is finding a way to adapt and survive on the prairie that remains.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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