MARTHA SEZ: ‘Let us hope that the female red-winged blackbirds are well rested before they fly north’
March 8, 2019


The blackbirds are back! Spring is coming.

Or at least the blackbirds seem to think so.

I watch for them every year. Blackbirds, like the Summer People, are migratory seasonal residents. The blackbirds' return from their winter haunts down South is one of the first signs of spring in the Adirondacks, where signs of spring are greatly appreciated.

Any sign of spring, even if it involves mud season or huge flocks of flapping, squawking, burbling birds creating a ruckus in the trees, is appreciated here.

The red-winged blackbirds fly in with their cohorts the starlings. Grackles, cowbirds and other blackbirds. The males arrive first. They are true harbingers of spring.

A harbinger is a forerunner, a precursor or herald, one who comes before. In medieval times the word referred to a person who was sent ahead of a traveling party to secure lodging, which is sort of what the male blackbirds do.

I did read, however, that it is the female blackbird who has the main say in where the nest is built, so maybe the truth is not as neatly and tidily packaged as we would like. I mean, if the females are just going to choose the nesting site anyway, what is the point of the males making such a great to-do of congregating en masse with their cowbird, starling and grackle buddies and heading up North where there is generally still snow on the ground? Why are they so loud and boisterous once they arrive? What purpose does it all serve? Maybe Cornell Cooperative Extension can explain it, but I just write it off as a guy thing.

Let us hope that the female red-winged blackbirds are well rested before they fly north, because they have a lot of work ahead of them, weaving nests from cattail leaves and willow bark near the water. They'll hang out together there for the summer like sister wives, about five of them, each with her own nest, in a territory presided over by one male.

Ornithologists, nosy parkers, that they are, have established by means of DNA testing that these sister wives do not mate solely with this presiding male, however.

While both males and females are fierce in defending their territory, red-winged blackbirds will tolerate the parasitic egg-laying behavior of cowbirds.

The brown-headed cowbird is a type of blackbird termed a brood parasite. Instead of bothering to build nests, the females simply lay their eggs in other birds' nests, nor do they show any interest in caring for their young. Cowbird young hatch earlier than most other birds, so they get a head start if they are fortunate enough to have nurturing adoptive parents. Some birds roll these interloper eggs out of their nests, but not red-winged blackbirds, and this may be the reason the cowbirds like to travel with them.

In 2017, even though I was on the lookout, I didn't see or hear any migratory blackbirds until March 22. This year I noticed the return of the blackbirds on March 3, the earliest date so far. Does this mean that we are going to have an early spring?

No. We tend to give birds and other creatures credit for predicting the weather, but I don't believe that blackbirds, relaxing down in Florida, have any idea or instinctive sense of how the weather is shaping up in the North Country.

"Is it that time already?" A female blackbird marvels. "You guys are flying north? Won't it still be awfully cold?"

"Honey, my gut tells me more than those meteorologists' brains can ever tell them," the male replies. "My gut tells me it's time to go. If you hurry, maybe you can nest in my territory again."

"Uh hunh. You take care now."

In reality, he and his buddies don't have a clue. It just depends on how antsy they feel in any given year, or when they get it together to take off.

Last year, I noticed their return the first week of March, just before Sunday, March 11, the first day of Daylight Saving Time, the day when fire destroyed Valley Grocery in Keene Valley. In this column I wrote, "Will the Reeds rebuild? We'll wait and see. Check back next March, when the blackbirds return, and see where things stand."

I am happy to say that yes, Valley Grocery reopened in February, and the town is rejoicing. Not that the blackbirds had anything to do with it.

Have a good week.


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