the competition

They’re back, and they’re busily staking out their territories.  The Red-winged Blackbirds that is.

Red-winged Blackbird

Timing is everything when males want to control the best space and resources to attract females when they arrive, so it’s best to be the first to arrive in coveted areas.

I had heard that blackbirds had been spotted along the southern border of the Twin Cities two days ago, so I went looking for them in our nearby local marshes, and didn’t find or hear a single bird.

But a very small pond lined with cattails bordering the parking lot of the local YMCA had three male blackbirds patrolling the space and actively announcing their presence.

One bird was hiding behind branches of a tree along the busy road.

Red-winged Blackbird

And he wouldn’t move! So this was the best shot I could get. Fortunately the brick walls of the YMCA were out of focus.

Another bird called from down in the cattails, but hopped up on them momentarily for a photo.

Red-winged Blackbird

Not much aggressive action between these two birds on this cold day.

The third bird called from his perch high up on a light pole, and I didn’t bother photographing him.

I wonder which of them will win the competition for this site.  It seems to me they could do so much better for breeding sites at some of the local ponds in parks nearby…but then I don’t know what blackbirds like.

the beauties of 2017

The backyard is quiet again, as the snow falls, temperatures drop, and the wildlife roam less far and wide (meaning, less likely to be seen in my backyard at least).  So, I’ve dug through the collection of “best birds of 2017” to bring you my 12 favorites from our treks around the U.S. this year.

Texas (near Brownsville)

Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Adult Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Harris Hawk-Alamo, Texas

Adult Harris Hawk diving down to get its piece of frozen chicken-Alamo, Texas

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Red-winged Blackbirds-Alamo, TX

Male Red-winged Blackbirds behaving badly, Alamo, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Long-billed Dowitchers-Laguna Vista TX-

Long-billed Dowitchers, Laguna Vista, TX

South-eastern Arizona (Tucson and Portal areas)

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ. The light was just off to the side so his brilliant iridescence is dulled.

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ, in its elements of thorns and spiny plants

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

You don’t really have to go too far to see some special birds, not found in your own backyard.  The trick is not just finding them, but getting them to cooperate for a photograph!

the woodpecker and the blackbird

I’m still working through the thousands of images from the 3-day bird photography workshop I attended in Alamo, Texas a couple of weeks ago, and found this series of interactions between a Golden-fronted Woodpecker and a Red-winged Blackbird.  No one can say those blackbirds aren’t feisty, pesky, and challenging.

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial face-off — innocent bystander in the background looks on

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

the initial attack, blackbird pecks at woodpecker

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

woodpecker retaliates, but the blackbird won’t back down

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

trying the overhead threat approach

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

okay, maybe it works better from this angle instead

Red-winged Blackbird vs Golden-fronted Woodpecker

Success! Annoy the woodpecker enough and it finally leaves

Blackbirds behaving badly

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have no tolerance for each other, kind of like politicians these days.

red-winged blackbird-confrontations-

Arguments over who controls the food source lead to a face-off


A lot of the puffed chest, wing display, and flared tail is for show, but sometimes beaks and feet get used as weapons


One bird may get its toes pinched by the other’s beak


Flying backwards is a useful skill for getting away from an aggressor


Who’s the boss?

With limited resources (one feeder) for a highly desirable food (lard-peanut butter mix), there is bound to be a lot of competition and aggression at the feeder among the resident birds.  After a number of inter-species face-offs, and a few beakings, it was apparent that the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were top dog, or big boss, or head honcho, as illustrated below.

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Red-winged blackbird

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Red-winged blackbird

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Great Kiskadee

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Great Kiskadee–no room on the feeder for the Kiskadee

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Green Jay

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Green Jay. The Jay landed, Woody turned his head and threatened with his beak, and the Jay crouched submissively.

What happens when two Woodpeckers confront each other?

Golden -fronted Woodpeckers

Female Golden -fronted Woodpeckers face off.

Golden -fronted Woodpeckers


The incessant chirps of newly fledged chicks fill my backyard with noise in the mornings and evenings.  Poor little Chipping Sparrows flit about the yard collecting food for their enormous and ever-hungry Cowbird chicks whose parents happily deposited their eggs in the sparrow nest (see my earlier post on this).

cowbird-chick-being-fed by Chipping Sparrow

Fledgling Cowbirds look to be twice the size of their foster parent. Adult Cowbirds are nest parasites, (depositing their eggs in the nests of host species), a strategy that worked well for the nomadic behavior that evolved while the birds followdc buffalo herds through the temperate grasslands.

Lately, it’s the Blue Jay chicks that have dominated the backyard, as they follow their parents around begging for scraps. It must give the fledglings plenty of practice flying around obstacles and landing in tight spaces, as their parents fly from tree to tree to lawn, and back again.  They must have to wean those big chicks of their dependence on adults for food soon.

blue jay fledglings-

Five Blue Jay fledglings crowd around while one of the parents (top right) forages in the grass.

blue jay fledglings-

Still in its cute stage — this one followed a parent into the middle of the tree, and immediately started into begging mode as it watched the parent forage.  Its wings and tail are a bit shorter than the adult’s, but soon they will be indistinguishable.

blue jay fledglings-

Parent moves on…baby still begging with wings fluttering and making sharp jay noises.

Red-winged Blackbird males typically have more than one mate — the average is about five females per male territory, but some males have been observed to have as many as 15 females nesting in their territory.  As you might expect, with all those active nests with 4-5 youngsters in each, the females take care of almost all of the feeding chores (males might help feed the first nest in his territory, but usually none beyond that).  However, that doesn’t prevent youngsters from flying right up to dad to beg a bit of food.

red-winged blackbird male and fledgling

Nonchalant male ignores begging youngster — his job is to guard the nest, not feed the chicks.

a shy guy

I came across a male Red-winged Blackbird on a morning walk recently that was singing and ready to defend the area around his shrub from encroaching humans, but didn’t seem eager to announce his territorial claim to the other male blackbirds in the marsh.

male red-winged blackbird-

He’s certainly vocal and stood his ground while we walked around him, but he’s kept his brilliant red epaulets covered with his breast and back feathers for some reason.

Quite a different display from the vocal male I encountered the week before, proudly showing off his epaulets…

red-winged blackbird-3830

Quite a different posture in this bird, which flares his epaulets outward as he calls.

Quite a different posture in this bird, that flares his epaulets and tail feathers outward as he calls.

Could the shy guy simply be trying to establish his presence, but in a low key manner so as not to provoke attacks from neighboring territory owners?

not much to sing about

It wouldn’t be March in Minnesota if we didn’t get a sloppy snowstorm before the month was over.  I won’t complain about the snow in my backyard (because there wasn’t any), but there was significant (6-10 inches) of the wet, white stuff starting just a few miles south of us.  I always wonder how early spring migrants tolerate the sudden change in temperature and disappearance of a not-so-reliable food source.

So, here’s a happy Red-winged Blackbird on the day before the storm at a local marsh.

Red-winged Blackbird

It’s only March, and the ladies haven’t arrived yet, but this doesn’t keep the boys from showing off their stuff.

And here is the scene the next morning…

red-winged blackbird-4094

A wet 10 inches or more of sloppy snow blanketed the landscape just south of downtown Saint Paul.

red-winged blackbird in a snowy marsh

On display, but definitely not singing!

red-winged blackbird-4112

Not really a happy Blackbird today.

But that’s spring…a time of ups and downs.

Whee!! This was the 1000th post on Back Yard Biology.  Thanks for reading!

Hidden food

This is the time of year we see massive flocks of “black birds” (Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles) wending their way around the landscape in erratic plumes, descending on swamps and fields to feed, and roosting in noisy, dense colonies in the trees.


Red-winged Blackbirds gathered in trees lining some recently plowed fields.

Crex Meadows-Red-winged Blackbirds

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds swarmed the cattail marshes at Crex Meadows — looking for what kind of food there?

I always wonder what kind of food birds are finding when they hunker down in the vegetation, probing into dry leaves and stems.

Crex Meadows-Red-winged Blackbir

The birds seem to be concentrating their efforts on probing into the bases of the cattails. What would they find there at this time of year when all the vegetation has died back? Inquiring minds want to know — my photography buddy on this field trip insists that I write about it.

A little research into the annual cycle of the Cattail reveals what a wealth of invertebrate life associate with this plant.  Its starchy root stalks and rhizomes are fed upon by a variety of critters, but this underwater food source is not what the blackbirds are after.  Instead, it might be orb-web spiders and orange garden spiders that have built vertical webs in among the vertical stalks of the cattails at this time of year.  Burrowing Water Beetle pupae may be found at the base of cattail stalks, already settled down for their winter diapause, only to be dislodged by the sharp bill of a blackbird.  In addition, larvae of the cattail borer moth overwinter in the cattail heads feeding on the seeds all winter — this resource sustains a variety of birds, like Black-capped chickadees, throughout the winter.

Red-winged Blackbird male-

A member of a big flock of birds searching extensive areas of potential food resource might locate food more quickly and easily than single individuals searching alone. And of course — there are more eyes to look for potential predators and more victims from which to choose when predators fly by. So dense flocks make a lot of sense at this time of year.

the swamp

Winter is the perfect time to explore Minnesota swamps — no bugs, firm footing, lots of nooks and crannies to explore.  In fact, it’s the perfect time to get close to what one can only see with binoculars the rest of the year, and did I mention freedom from annoying mosquitoes? Muskrat houses, beaver lodges, footprints of unknown animals crossing the snow and ice, all signs of life going on as usual in the frozen swampland.

cattail swamp

cattails and eagle nest

And if you’re lucky, you find eagle and osprey nests that you would like to come back and revisit when the birds have returned to breed near the swamp.

But today, there weren’t any critters around, so I took time to examine the omnipresent cattails and marvel at the construction of that enormous seedhead.

cattail seedhead

The compact sausage-shaped seedhead develops from fertilized female flowers. Male flowers are present only in the early spring and sit above the female flowers on the spike, but fall off after they have released their pollen.  That’s why the top of the cattail always looks bare in the winter.

There must be billions of those tiny seeds in one cattail head.  Is it any wonder this plant spreads so quickly at the margin of shallow lakes and slow-moving streams? It doesn’t depend just on establishment by seed either; cattails propagate quite nicely from their underground root stalk (rhizome) and can spread where ever the water, light, and temperatures are conducive to their growth, unfortunately choking out many of our native wetland species.

Because they are so successful, we tend to think of them as nuisance plants (the common Narrowleaf Cattail is introduced from Europe actually).  But they are one of the most versatile of the wild, edible plants, if harvested at the appropriate times. For example: (information from Voyaguer Country)

  • In late spring the young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked as we would asparagus,
  • later the green immature spikes can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob.
  • In early summer the yellow pollen produced by the yellow male spike, can be collected, sifted and mixed with other flours creating a protein rich flour. (Apparently the pollen is also flammable and makes a nice explosive combustion for fireworks.)
  • Late summer the horn shaped sprouts at the top of the root stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. These sprouts may contain up to 30% starch and sugars.
  • The starchy core at the base of the sprouts can be prepared like a potato. In the winter the root stocks fill with starch which can be retrieved and dried into a good quality white flour, or cooked like a potato.
  • Once the flower spikes have gone to seed they have been used as insulation, padding, and wound dressing, and the leaves can be used to weave together for a mat.

And of course, numerous avian species seek out the protection that cattail vegetation provides for nesting habitat.

red-winged-blackbird defending its territory

They aren’t around yet, but the cattail swamp will be filled with noisy Red-winged Blackbirds in a few months.


Yellow-headed Blackbirds like cattails too, along with several warbler, rail, wren, bittern, heron, and sparrow species.