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Red-winged Blackbird

Agelaius phoeniceus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: ICTERIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Red-winged Blackbird Photo

One of the most abundant birds across North America, and one of the most boldly colored, the Red-winged Blackbird is a familiar sight atop cattails, along soggy roadsides, and on telephone wires. Glossy-black males have scarlet-and-yellow shoulder patches they can puff up or hide depending on how confident they feel. Females are a subdued, streaky brown, almost like a large, dark sparrow. In the North, their early arrival and tumbling song are happy indications of the return of spring.

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Keys to identification Help

Blackbirds
Blackbirds
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A stocky, broad-shouldered blackbird with a slender, conical bill and a medium-length tail. Red-winged Blackbirds often show a hump-backed silhouette while perched; males often sit with tail slightly flared.

  • Color Pattern

    Male Red-winged Blackbirds are hard to mistake. They're an even glossy black with red-and-yellow shoulder badges. Females are crisply streaked and dark brownish overall, paler on the breast and often show a whitish eyebrow.

  • Behavior

    Male Red-winged Blackbirds do everything they can to get noticed, sitting on high perches and belting out their conk-la-ree! song all day long. Females stay lower, skulking through vegetation for food and quietly weaving together their remarkable nests. In winter Red-winged Blackbirds gather in huge flocks to eat grains with other blackbird species and starlings.

  • Habitat

    Look for Red-winged Blackbirds in fresh and saltwater marshes, along watercourses, water hazards on golf courses, and wet roadsides, as well as drier meadows and old fields. In winter, you can find them at crop fields, feedlots, and pastures.

Range Map Help

Red-winged Blackbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Black overall
    • Red shoulder with yellow border
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008
  • Adult female

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Brown and streaky overall
    • Thick dark streaks on breast
    • Buff or orangish throat
    • Sharply pointed conical bill
    • © Matt MacGillivray, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, April 2008
  • Immature male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Immature male
    • Overall black with buff or orange edges to feathers
    • Yellow on shoulder, may show some red
    • Conical, pointed bill
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, October 2008
  • Adult male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Black with red and yellow shoulder
    • Moderate length tail
    • © Laura Erickson, May 2005
  • Adult female

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Streaked, brown back
    • Moderate length tail
    • Conical, sharply pointed bill
    • © rainriver, Ridgefield, Washington, April 2007
  • Fledgling

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Fledgling
    • Overall dark with rufous edging, similar to female
    • May show bare skin on face, yellow gape
    • © vidular, Ontarioville, Illinois, July 2008
  • Adult male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Red shoulder with yellow border
    • Black overall
    • © Ted Schroeder
  • Immature male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Immature male
    • Overall black with buff or orange edges to feathers
    • Yellow on shoulder, may show some red
    • © Richard Lee
  • Adult female

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult female
    • Brown and streaky overall
    • Dark streaks on breast
    • Buff or orangish throat
    • Sharply pointed bill
    • © Judy Howle
  • Adult male

    Red-winged Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Red on shoulder may be hidden
    • © Linda Salter

Similar Species

  • Adult male

    Brewer's Blackbird

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Red-winged Blackbird
    • Glossy overall (may show blue, green, and purple)
    • Yellow eye
    • No red shoulder
    • © Laura Erickson, Santa Barbara, California, August 2005
  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Similar to female or immature Red-winged Blackbird
    • Much smaller, with paler underparts
    • Stouter, less pointed bill
    • Dark streaks on pale breast often show dark spot in center
    • © Ed Schneider, White Creek, Tennessee, October 2008
  • Adult male

    Brown-headed Cowbird

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Red-winged Blackbird
    • No red shoulder
    • Brown head
    • Shorter tail
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008
  • Adult male

    Common Grackle

    Adult male
    • Similar to male Red-winged Blackbird
    • Glossy overall (may show blue, green, and purple), no red shoulder
    • Yellow eye
    • Large size, very long, large tail
    • Large, heavy bill
    • © Jim Gilbert, New Jersey, October 2008
  • Adult breeding

    European Starling

    Adult breeding
    • Similar to adult male Red-winged Blackbird
    • Glossy black overall (may appear purple, green, or blue)
    • Long, thin, yellowish bill; pink legs
    • Often with pale spots all over
    • No red shoulder
    • © Sam Wilson, Scottsdale, Arizona, April 2008

Similar Species

Where Tricolored and Red-winged Blackbirds overlap in California, male Tricolored Blackbirds can be distinguished by their overall glossier plumage and a white border to their epaulets (shoulder patches). Female Tricolored Blackbirds are a somewhat colder charcoal-gray overall with less streaking than female Red-winged Blackbirds. Song Sparrows and other streaky sparrows sometimes look like female Red-winged Blackbirds, though they are smaller and shorter tailed, with a shorter, thicker bill than a blackbird.

Regional Differences

There’s subtle variation in Red-winged Blackbirds across the country. The most obvious race is the “bicolored blackbird” of coastal California, which shows no yellow border on the red shoulders.

Backyard Tips

Red-winged Blackbirds may come to your yard for mixed grains and seeds, particularly during migration. Spread grain or seed on the ground as well, since this is where Red-winged Blackbirds prefer to feed.

Find This Bird

You can find Red-winged Blackbirds in the breeding season by visiting cattail marshes and other wetlands, or simply by watching telephone wires on a drive through the country. Where there’s standing water and vegetation, Red-winged Blackbirds are likely to be one of the most common birds you see and hear. Listen for the male’s conk-la-lee! song. In winter, search through mixed-species blackbird flocks and be careful not to overlook the streaky, brown females, which can sometimes resemble a sparrow.

Get Involved

Watch your feeders in winter and report your bird counts to Project FeederWatch

How Red-wings Elude Eavesdroppers

Have you seen Red-winged Blackbirds? Learn how to monitor their nests and report your observations to NestWatch

Visit eBird to explore maps and charts showing where Red-winged Blackbirds are throughout the year. Contribute your sightings!

You Might Also Like

Interpreting Red-winged Blackbird Behavior: Story in BirdScope.

All About Birds blog, Identify the Brown, Streaky, Juvenile Songbirds of Summer With These Tips, July 23, 2014.

Red-winged Blackbird from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1958)