Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 11, 2008

Don’t Mess with the Blackbird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:07 pm

  Male Red-winged Blackbirds are dedicated defenders of truth, justice, and the wetland way. They immediately get in your face if you happen to trespass into their territory and assail you with a barrage of foul language, gestures, and an occasional peck on the head.  These guys have “chutzpa” – or what ever it is called when testicular fortitude is involved.  

  These black and red birds are aggressive enough when defending their borders from others of their own kind. Each male has several females to watch over. It’s their part of the mating deal to ensure a predator and rival free patch of marsh supplied with an abundant amount of insect food. These dynamos, however, will tackle any size or species of opponent with equal vigor when in the service of their instincts.

  Bald Eagles circle helplessly, Robins scream frantically, and Cardinals do a whole lot of crest erecting when their nests are threatened, but that’s about it.  These birds pale when compared to the black bombers of the bird world.  Red-wings are not afraid to make contact. I have frequently been pecked on the top of the head by a male red-wing after a series of low fast dives failed to drive me off.  The same treatment is delivered upon cats, raccoons, mink, herons, deer, and whoever else fails to heed the verbal warnings. The anxious bird pictured above is ready to spring into action – you can almost see the “bring it on” look in his eyes.

  By definition, a territory is a defended space. Some species chose to protect only a small territory around their nest, even though they make use of a much larger area. In the ornithological world, the owner of a territory has a major advantage over his opponents – the mental high ground, so to speak. William Terres, author of a major encyclopedia of birdlife, goes on to state that a bird is “virtually invincible in his territory.” Red-wings choose to extend their invincibility into the air column above their land space with cock-sure panache (how about those fancy words, eh?).

  Among the many curse words utilized by male Red-winged Blackbirds, a penetrating short whistle call (sounding like “Tee-ooooo”) indicates an aerial intruder has been spotted. Where lesser fowl would cower in the underbrush, the “wings” take to the air in order to escort the threat through their national airspace. Crows, hawks, ospreys, and vultures are all attacked. It is a common early summer sight to see a high-flying Turkey Vulture harassed by one or two Red-wings (see a great shot here and here). The defending birds rise up into the air after the intruder like metal fragments attracted to a large black magnet. They drop off after performing a short aggressive escort service (something like those guys guarding Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back– sort of).

  Oddly enough, these larger birds usually make no aggressive response against their pesky attackers although they are amply equipped to do so. That adage about the psychological advantage of the territory holder over the invader is a powerful force of nature– even though claiming air space as territory is a bit of a stretch. I saw a Red-tailed Hawk perform a nifty” roll-over and grab” maneuver against a blackbird once, but the action was executed more out of frustration than any sincere attempt to kill his tormentor. 

  In the end, most of these aerial trespassers pose no real threat to the blackbird or his family.  Vultures are scavengers, Red-tails don’t rob nests, and Ospreys eat fish. Crows are a major threat since they are always on the hunt for eggs and nestlings.  Any large dark bird, therefore, is immediately categorized as a crow just to keep things on the safe side.

  All of this bravado ceases dramatically at the end of the nesting season in mid-July. Secure in the knowledge that they have done their manly duty, the Red-wing males kick back for the rest of the summer.

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