Illustration: Red-winged blackbird

Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt


Map: Red-winged blackbird range


This species is one of the most widely distributed, abundant, well-known, and well-named birds in North America. Polytypic. Length 8.7" (22 cm).

Identification Usually sits in an obvious place or is found in flocks, feeding on ground. A medium-size passerine with a sharply pointed, strong bill, somewhat upright posture. Summer male: black, including soft parts, with bright red shoulder patch or “epaulet,” bordered by yellow in most subspecies. Winter male: as summer male, but shows warm brown feather tips throughout the body. Female: well streaked throughout, with whitish supercilium. Above brown and streaked. Face and underparts pale with dense streaking, broadly on breast and upper belly. Peachy wash on chin and throat. Dull reddish edges to lesser coverts create a poorly developed reddish epaulet. Soft parts blackish. Immature male: as winter male, but heavily edged and fringed rusty, brown or buffy above, often showing buff supercilium. Epaulet shows black spotting. Immature female: as adult female, but epaulet not developed and throat lacks peachy wash.

Geographic Variation Approximately 26 subspecies recognized, 14 in North America. Most are poorly defined, but the California bicolored group (californicus, mailliardorum) are characterized by dark females appearing solidly blackish brown above and on lower breast to vent and show no or a poorly developed supercilium. Males show black median coverts, so the red epaulet lacks a yellow border.

Similar Species The male tri­colored blackbird has a thinner, more pointed bill, a white epaulet border, colder gray-buff upperpart markings in winter, and a different voice.

Voice Call: chuk. Song: a hoarse, gurgling konk-la-ree; variable but gurgled start and trilled ending characteristic.

Status and Distribution Abundant. Year-round: open or semi-open habitats, closely associated with farmland. Breeding: usually in cattail marsh, but also in moist open, shrubby habitats. Migration: southern populations resident; northern ones short-distance migrants, which arrive in Northeast late February–March and leave by November. Vagrant: casual to Arctic Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland.

Population One of the most abundant birds in North America, the red-winged’s count was estimated at 190 million in the mid-1970s. Populations are stable.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

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