Red-Winged Blackbird: Mating Habits, Nesting & Eggs

red-winged blackbird nest
A red-winged blackbird’s nest is woven into an open cup-shaped and built above the water. You can find the nests in dense wetland vegetation like sedges, cattails, and bullrushes. 

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the most unique of the blackbird species. Everything from their spectacular red shoulder patches to their nest sites amongst the cattails set them apart.

As one of the most abundant birds of North America, you’re sure to encounter one of these striking blackbirds. Like most blackbird species, red-winged blackbirds tend to travel in large flocks. In the breeding season, you can find them in wetlands and both fresh and saltwater marshes.

Even if you don’t see them at first, you’ll hear the telltale conk-la-ree song of the male red-winged blackbirds.

First, let’s talk about how to tell the red-winged blackbird apart from similar North American blackbirds, then we’ll dive into some common questions about this wonderful blackbird species.

What does a red-winged blackbird look like?

red winged blackbird sitting at the marsh

Red-winged blackbirds are glossy black birds with red shoulder patches, sometimes called epaulets. There is a yellow stripe under the red patch. Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are one of the most abundant birds of North America. They can be found in wetlands with plenty of cattails.

The adult male is the more striking of the two, with deep black feathers and a red and yellow wing patch. Adult female red-winged blackbirds are lighter with streaky white and black markings on their bellies and small orange feathers highlighting their face.

Red-winged blackbirds are found throughout North America, except for subspecies living in limited areas of California and Mexico. Agelaius phoeniceus gubernator is commonly referred to as the bicolored blackbird.

Unlike other red-winged blackbirds, the bicolored blackbird only has red plumage on the wing patch. Female bicolored blackbirds have a dull red shoulder patch similar to adult males.

Another similar blackbird species that favors wetlands and saltwater marshes is the tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor).

Telling tricolored and red-winged blackbirds apart is relatively easy since male tricolored blackbirds have a white stripe under the red shoulder patch instead of the yellow stripe. Female tricolored blackbirds are all black with white-edged feathers where the male’s red patch would be.

red winged blackbird cawing

What does a red-winged blackbird song sound like?

Red-winged blackbirds have a distinctive conk-la-ree sound. Sometimes described as ok-ka-lee, the red-winged blackbird call is integral to mating and establishing male territory.

Red-winged blackbird call

The song spans about 1-second, starting with a short note that settles into a melodic trill before cutting off. Red-wing blackbirds spread their wings slightly and lean into the sound, impressively displaying their signature red epaulets. 

Red-winged blackbirds are part of the dawn chorus. Dawn chorus songbirds sing early in the morning, starting before sunrise. During the breeding season, the vocalizations can be pretty loud.

two red winged blackbirds

Do red-winged blackbirds mate for life?

Red-winged blackbirds do not mate for life. A male red-winged blackbird may mate with up to 15 different females in one breeding season. Male red-winged blackbirds sing to attract mates and to establish a nesting site.

Female blackbirds will build nests close together in a single male’s territory. Both parents feed the nestlings, which means one male will help several females raise each brood.

Once the mating and breeding season begins in early Spring, the male will defend this territory aggressively. Despite the male’s best efforts, more than 20% of the nestlings in a male’s territory can be fathered by a different male.

When is the red-winged blackbird’s mating season?

Red-winged blackbirds have a relatively short mating season, which lasts from early Spring to mid-summer. During this time, the male red-winged blackbird sings to attract females, who weave open cup nests wedged tightly in the wetland grasses and cattail stalks.

About 70% of males return to the same breeding site every season. Birds who changed the male’s territory typically moved less than 200 meters away.

Red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive during the breeding season. They have been known to divebomb humans that get too close to their nesting sites, giving them a bad reputation.

They will also chase crows and hawks from nesting sites, boldly attacking the much larger birds in flight until the predator gives up and leaves the male’s territory. Like all prey animals, these tactics are defensive and protective measures to ensure the species survives.

Watch our video and discover 7 facts about Blackbirds you may not have known about!

Do red-winged blackbirds migrate?

Red-winged blackbirds are migratory birds considered to be true snowbirds. This means they fly south for the winter. Since red-winged blackbirds are present in most of North America, the birds that already live in warm southern states remain in their nesting site year-round.

Red-winged blackbirds in the northern United States and Canada have been recorded migrating up to 800 miles in search of warmer weather. While migrating, they rest frequently. They travel in large flocks and roost with other birds like starlings.

As they migrate, they can be found in an empty field and on farmland. Red-winged blackbirds are omnivores that forage on waste grain, seeds, and millet. They also enjoy a variety of insects like grasshoppers.

If you’re trying to entice them to your backyard as they migrate, fill your bird feeders with a selection of seeds, millet, and dried insects.

red winged blackbird nest

What does a red-winged blackbird’s nest look like?

Female red-winged blackbirds build their tightly woven nests out of wet leaves and the grass-like vegetation found in wetlands. She fills the spaces with mud and lines the inside with soft grasses.

Each female lays 3-4 bluish green speckled eggs. The female Red-Winged Blackbird lays between 3-4 bluish green speckled eggs. The incubation period is short, hatching after just 3-11 days.

red winged blackbird hatchling

How many broods do red-winged blackbirds have each breeding season?

Female blackbirds have up to 3 broods per breeding season, but 1-2 broods are more typical.

Because of their short breeding season, red-winged blackbirds tend to have 1-2 broods a season. The female lays 3-4 eggs, and incubation last 3-11 days.

The hatchlings remain in the nest for 10-14 days, being fed by both parents. Once the nestlings leave, the female builds a new nest and starts again. Renesting for each brood protects the new babies from parasites.

While the female red-winged blackbird raises no more than a dozen babies in a single breeding season, the promiscuous male may care for dozens of young.

Even though the male’s territory is fiercely protected, there’s a chance that 20% or more of those young aren’t even the offspring of the male. Because of their mating habits and aggressive territory protection, the red-winged blackbird remains one of the most abundant birds in North America.

Tara Summerville

Tara Summerville is a freelance writer that loves her backyard birdfeeders. She enjoys sitting on her deck with a cup of coffee, watching cardinals, blue jays, finches, and chickadees munch away at her backyard offerings. Her fascination with birds began as a child; spending afternoons at her grandma's house watching and identifying birds. She has since carried her love of songbirds into adulthood and ensures no bird in her yard goes hungry!

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