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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7–9.1 in
17–23 cm
Wingspan
12.2–15.7 in
31–40 cm
Weight
1.1–2.7 oz
32–77 g
Relative Size
About three-quarters the size of a Common Grackle
Other Names
  • Carouge à épaulettes (French)
  • Tordo alirrojo, Tordo capitán, Mayito de la ciénaga, Sargento (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Different populations and subspecies of Red-winged Blackbirds vary markedly in size and proportions. An experiment was conducted that moved nestlings between populations and found that the chicks grew up to resemble their foster parents. This study indicated that much of the difference seen between populations is the result of different environments rather than different genetic makeups.
  • The Red-winged Blackbird is a highly polygynous species, meaning males have many female mates – up to 15 in some cases. In some populations 90 percent of territorial males have more than one female nesting on their territories. But all is not as it seems: one-quarter to one-half of nestlings turn out to have been sired by someone other than the territorial male.
  • Male Red-winged Blackbirds fiercely defend their territories during the breeding season, spending more than a quarter of daylight hours in territory defense. He chases other males out of the territory and attacks nest predators, sometimes going after much larger animals, including horses and people.
  • Red-winged Blackbirds roost in flocks in all months of the year. In summer small numbers roost in the wetlands where the birds breed. Winter flocks can be congregations of several million birds, including other blackbird species and starlings. Each morning the roosts spread out, traveling as far as 50 miles to feed, then re-forming at night.
  • One California subspecies of the Red-winged Blackbird lacks the yellow borders to the red shoulders (epaulets) and has been dubbed the “bicolored blackbird.” Some scientists think this plumage difference may help Red-winged Blackbirds recognize each other where their range overlaps with the similar Tricolored Blackbird.
  • The oldest recorded Red-winged Blackbird was 15 years 9 months old.

Habitat


Marsh

Red-winged Blackbirds spend the breeding season in wet places like fresh or saltwater marshes and rice paddies. You may also find them breeding in drier places like sedge meadows, alfalfa fields, and fallow fields. Occasionally, Red-winged Blackbirds nest in wooded areas along waterways. In fall and winter, they congregate in agricultural fields, feedlots, pastures, and grassland.

Food


Insects

Red-winged Blackbirds eat mainly insects in the summer and seeds, including corn and wheat, in the winter. Sometimes they feed by probing at the bases of aquatic plants with their slender bills, prying them open to get at insects hidden inside. In fall and winter they eat weedy seeds such as ragweed and cocklebur as well as native sunflowers and waste grains.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.9–1.1 in
2.2–2.7 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.6–1.9 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
11–14 days
Egg Description
Pale blue-green to gray with black or brown markings.
Condition at Hatching
Blind, naked with scant buffy or grayish down, poorly coordinated.
Nest Description

Females build the nests by winding stringy plant material around several close, upright stems and weaving in a platform of coarse, wet vegetation. Around and over this she adds more wet leaves and decayed wood, plastering the inside with mud to make a cup. Finally, she lines the cup with fine, dry grasses. One nest picked apart by a naturalist in the 1930s had been made by weaving together 34 strips of willow bark and 142 cattail leaves, some 2 feet long. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Red-winged Blackbirds build their nests low among vertical shoots of marsh vegetation, shrubs, or trees. Females choose the nest site with some input from the male. Typically, she puts the nest near the ground (or water surface in a marsh), in dense, grass-like vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, sedges, and Phragmites in wetlands; goldenrod, blackberry, or willow and alder trees in uplands; and wheat, barley, alfalfa, and rice plants.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Male Red-winged Blackbirds spend much of the breeding season sitting on a high perch over their territories and singing their hearts out. Females tend to slink through reeds and grasses collecting food or nest material. Both males and females defend nests from intruders and predators. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in loose groups in part because appropriate marshy habitat is scarce. Typically five or more (up to 15) females have to crowd their nests into any one male’s territory. They typically mate with the territory holder, though many also mate with nearby males. In fall and winter, Red-winged Blackbirds flock with other blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings, feeding on open ground and roosting in flocks of thousands or millions of birds. Red-winged Blackbirds are strong, agile fliers.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Though they may be one of the most abundant native birds on the continent, Red-winged Blackbird populations declined by over 30 percent throughout most of their range since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 130 million, down from 190 million in 1974. 80 percent of the population spends part of the year in the U.S., 14 percent in Canada, and 16 percent in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Resident or short-distance migrant. Red-winged Blackbirds in northern North America winter in the southern United States, as far as about 800 miles from their breeding ranges. Southern and some western populations don’t migrate at all.

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!

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Interpreting Red-winged Blackbird Behavior: Story in BirdScope.

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