You’ll likely hear him before you see him, a lone speck of black pouring his heart out above a choice stand of cattails in one of the many wetlands across the Shuswap.
To human ears, these persistent oaka-lee-a songs of a red-winged blackbird are part of nature’s swelling chant announcing both winter’s retreat and the advance of nesting season for many of our songbirds.
As you approach closer, you’ll see his namesake patches of red, trimmed with a line of yellow, pulsating into view.
With each song, these otherwise mostly black birds, lean forward with partially open wings showing off their finest colours.
Perfectly set in an otherwise jet-black feathered background, this regalia sends a clear message to other male red-wings: this cattail patch is my kingdom – approach at your peril.
When male red-wings are at ease with their wings folded, their wing-patches appear as epaulettes covering the male’s shoulder.
But they are actually wing-ornaments formed by feathers growing from the bird-equivalent of our wrists.
When defending a breeding territory or trying to attract a female, male red-wings flaunt this wrist jewelry as a signal of vitality. And when the males wish to avoid conflict, they fold their wings and hide the red among their black body feathers.
Females red-wings couldn’t be more different from males.
Much smaller in size, they appear to us as inconspicuous striped brown birds without a song. In the world of the red-wing, this is a time-tested arrangement. Males select and defend choice nesting areas.
Females select and accept ever-vigilant mates guarding territories rich in nesting sites and food for their young. In fact, in the red-wing mating system, several females typically accept the same strong suitor and lord-of-the-cattail-patch.