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Reflections in nature: The origins of the red-winged blackbird

On June 17, 1775, George Washington took office as General in Chief of the Continental Army, consisting of militia from the various colonies.

With the difficulty of distinguishing officers from soldiers, Washington issued an order that officers were to wear red and pink colored cockades in their hats; sergeants were to wear epaulettes of red cloth sewn on their right shoulders and corporals were to have green cloth sewn on their right shoulders.

Our word “soldier” comes from the Latin word solidus, meaning either a piece of money or the pay of a soldier.

A common name for the red-winged blackbird is soldier bird because its epaulets remind us of the shoulder ornaments attached to a soldier’s uniform.

The jet black male has a vivid red patch (epaulet) on each shoulder bordered below by a stripe of yellow. The bird’s name is fitting since the red-wings do gather in large flocks, and, just as marching armies, make skillful maneuvers as they wheel and turn at the same time while flying over fields.

The red-winged blackbird belongs to the thrush family of which there are 306 species worldwide, with 19 species residing in North America. The thrush family has some of the finest singers of all birds. Our symbols of spring, the robin and bluebird, are also known for their singing, and tameness.

How many of you remember saying this rhyme to your children and then pinching their noses? This rhyme is about a blackbird, which is in the thrush family:

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house counting out his money,

The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,

When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

The loud konk-a-ree call of the red-winged blackbird can be heard in any swamp, marsh or wetland in Pennsylvania. The redwings nest in loose colonies. They build their nests low and near water, among the cattails, sedges, reeds and other shrubs. Some people believe that the red-winged blackbird is the most populous bird in North America and the fourth populous species in Pennsylvania. Redwings travel in enormous flocks, sometimes in the company of grackles and cowbirds.

In the spring, after the females arrive, the males will be seen perched on the tops of bushes or clinging to old cattail stalks. Much of their time will be spent in singing and protecting their territories against other redwings and even against much larger birds, such as crows. I’ve often seen a male red-winged blackbird clinging to the back of a flying crow, while pecking furiously. The red-wing’s reputation for protecting its nest ranks right up there with the reckless abandonment shown by the kingbird. Male red-winged blackbirds are polygamous. A large territory is maintained, in which he has attracted two or three females into nesting.

The females are brown, with a streaked breast and a light streak over each eye. The female does all the work in the building of the nest. Although the male is nearby, he offers no help but seems to be interested in what she is doing. Perhaps he is offering encouragement.

The nest, which is a loosely woven cup of dried cattail leaves, is fastened to a stalk or twig with plant fibers. The female usually lays four pale blue-green eggs, mostly spotted but could have zig zag lines of black, brown or purple. Incubation, which is done entirely by the female, takes eleven to twelve days. The young, who will stay in the nest for about twelve days, are fed a diet of insects. It is believed that some of the females will have a second brood later in the summer.

The female red-winged blackbird is often a host to the female cowbird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. The female red-winged blackbird will usually hatch and raise the young cowbird as her own. Sometimes, the young cowbird will be the only young she will raise that summer.

The red-winged blackbird has a flying speed of seventeen to twenty-three miles per hour and weighs about two and one half ounces. The females are smaller, weighing only about one and a half ounces.

Although the military did not steal the idea of wearing epaulets on their shoulders from the red winged blackbird, this only goes to prove that whatever man does, something in nature has been doing since time began.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

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