Northland Nature: The return of red-winged blackbirdsEach day after March 20, I walk to a nearby swamp and search the trees along the edge and the shrubs in the swamp for a blackbird.
A few days ago, we reached the vernal equinox. This event told us that we had as many hours of daylight as we have of darkness, and now with longer days continuing to grow, the light will now outlast the darkness until late September.
The vernal equinox also tells us that we have entered the season of spring. Every year when we get to late March, we note the date and the season on the calendar and then go out to see the season actually happening near our homes. Recent weather may have given us some wonder of when we’ll see spring springing.
Marches of recent years have shown quite a variation. In 2012, March had an average temperature approaching a record-setting 40 degrees (with several days in the 60s and 70s) while March 2008 averaged only 21. And though we often get a day or two of at least 50 degrees, the high for this month, in 2008 and 2011, was only 46. The long-term average for March is 26 degrees. (Averages given by the national weather service are based on the records of the previous thirty years. These get recalculated each decade. We now use statistics of 1980-2010 as the norm.)
Snowfalls have also shown quite diversity. While 2007, with its early blizzard, saw 26 inches of snow in the month, 2010 registered virtually zero.
Temperatures and snowfalls have a huge effect on when we’ll see some of the happenings that we associate with spring. Most of us look for the first crocus or dandelion to bloom in the yard, or any one of several migrant birds to show up in the region. Though many migrant songbirds, such as purple finches, juncos, grackles and robins, will come back each year in March, it is the arrival of the red-winged blackbirds at a nearby swamp that I look for the most.
Each day after March 20, I walk to a nearby swamp and search the trees along the edge and the shrubs in the swamp for a blackbird. When discovered, the bird will usually commence singing within a day or two of the return. The male loudly proclaims his “konk-a-ree” song to his surroundings, normally devoid of other blackbirds. Since he arrived alone, and since females will not be back until about a month from now, it is a little hard to know why he sings. It appears as though this wetland nesting site is so important to him that he’ll proclaim ownership as soon as he has returns. Probably this is the same male (or his family) that was here last year, and he wants to be sure to get this homeland. There just may be another interested male lurking nearby as well.
Some years, I returned from my walks to the swamp without sighting the anticipated returnee. And it could be more than a week before I do see one. The first red-wing at this location in the last ten years has varied from as early as March 15 (2006) and March 17 (2012) to as late as March 31 (2008), and had to wait until April 5 the spring of 2011. The overall average of the last ten years of this bird’s coming back to this swamp is March 25, but I expect it to be later this year.
Red-winged blackbirds and other birds that decide to return early will benefit in finding a place to nest. There are few rivals on these early dates, but they also need to deal with springtime snowstorms, freezing rains, ice and many days of chilly temperatures. But none of these weather conditions seem to impact their plans of the early arrival, and coming back to claim a territory before any of the other birds makes the whole trip worth it.
Under the erratic conditions of spring, they need to subsist on a diet of whatever is available. This may mean finding and eating some early-emerging insects, or it may be shifting to feed on seeds and fruits that are still available. Other early arrivals, especially purple finches and juncos, will frequently find seeds on bird feeders a great help, but red-winged blackbirds and their cousins, the grackles, have been known to drop by as well.
About a month from now, the larger flocks of blackbirds, often comprised of a couple of species along with female red-wings, will be here too. But from the first arrival until the others show up, the early males spend their time feeding and singing at various sites within the territory.
It’s hard work for him, but for me, the “konk-a-ree” song is one of the greatest sounds of the new season.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.