The wild red-wing black-
bird croaks frog-like though more shrill
as the beads of
his head blaze over the
swamp and the odors of the swamp vodka
to his nostrils."
"Red-wing Blackbird," by William Carlos Williams
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
It is the last day of March and Persephone, goddess of new vegetation, thus spring, is laying low having a laugh as we all eagerly, anxiously await the change of seasons. The snows may have melted, but the porch once again is covered with a slick sheet of morning ice as the chill wind whips over the hillside. That roaring lion roars all night, hopefully blowing away the last vestiges of winter.
Birds, too, anticipate the onset of spring and the hatching of millions of insects frozen still in crack and crevices everywhere. The goldfinches wake with the dawn, chittering and chattering, as they descend on the feeders. Some days there are 30 or so, but more and more arrive until the low trees near the feeders look like bald Christmas trees decorated with many pale yellow and green ornaments.
A family of turkeys trots down from the hill and feasts upon the daily rations of sunflower seeds. Movement inside the house makes them start, but only for a second, as they stand stock still glittering eye wary in that now bright red and blue head. More and more skitter in dashing from one feeding station to the other not wanting to leave a single ground tidbit uneaten.
Best of all, since March 21, a male red-winged blackbird joins the usual suspects gracing the feeders, singing that wonderful song. Not only do the blackbirds arrive on the first day of spring this year, so do the red-shouldered hawks, that screeching trio circling above the road.
Blackbirds, though, are the quintessential harbinger of spring. This year many robins overwintered as did bluebirds. Once the flocks of redwings and grackles make there way to the swamps and marshes, fields and forests, there’s no turning back for Persephone even though she often plays a mean, teasing game of washing the still-brown landscape not with gentle rain but with billowing snows.
Our welcome resident blackbird sits atop the pole from which the feeder hangs flashing his red epaulets and fanning his tail not to attract a female, but to declare this territory his. "Conqueree, conqueree!" he calls. They do so like to establish a home base for their bride or brides (occasionally blackbirds are polygamous) before the females come a’dancin’ and a’prancin’ north. Some birders have transmogrified his early spring call to be: "belongsto meee, belongsto meee" signaling to all other blackbirds that this area is taken.
Red-winged blackbirds, Agelaius phoeniceus, are easy to identify plumaged a shiny black with red epaulets edged with yellow. They are not to be confused with the European blackbird or redwing, both of which are thrushes. Their blackbird, though, is like a Goth-plumaged robin, all black with a yellow bill, and their redwing looks like one of our thrushes, but with red flanks and underwings.
Our blackbirds, strictly new world birds, are icterids, related to the melodious meadowlarks and orioles as well as the similarly black-plumaged grackles and cowbirds. In Bent’s "Life Histories of the North American Birds," the lengthy entry for the red-winged blackbird is followed by much shorter entries for 14 subspecies, based primarily on location and on small differences in beak size and coloration. Many of these descriptions note that one could not identify a live bird. To tell one subspecies from another, you would need a dead specimen in hand. Imagine the wrangling if all of the subspecies delineated in Bent were included on lifelists!
Of the 14 subspecies, one became its own species, the tricolored, very similar to the red-winged but with more yellow than red on its epaulets. These birds are found only in California and Mexico. Of the remaining 13, only one is still recognized as a subspecies, the bicolored which is found solely in California.
Some old European cookbooks have recipes for making blackbird dishes -- think that four and twenty blackbirds bubbling in a pie fit for a king. One essay in the literature mentions this and states that the Americans didn’t eat blackbirds. Yet Bent does describe how blackbirds especially in the fall in the midwest descended into the grain fields and gorged and gorged.
These fattened-up birds were slaughtered, he claims, and sent to market as "reed-birds." "Their little bodies were served as delicious morsels for the gourmand’s table. Few could distinguish them from bobolinks." (!!!) Baked bobolink? Broasted bobolink? Ugh! Thank goodness, all blackbirds are protected species!
On my morning walk, I come to the pond and watch a flock of male blackbirds zoom into the bare trees by the marsh and then, as described by Frank Chapman, "...with the precision of a trained choir (the flock) breaks into wild tinkling glee." No matter where you go, the swamps and marshes are "tinkling" with blackbirds staking out their territories. Curiously, the blackbirds that select the best nesting area -- reeds in the middle of a swamp or marsh -- are the ones that are polygamous, as if the abundance of insects that hatch there give license for multiple partner.
Spring IS coming. Remember that according to the poet, May Swenson, "In the book of spring/a bare limbed torso/ is the first illustration." Soon as the temperatures rise bit by bit and the bud-studded trees become veiled in pale verdant leaves, thousands migrating birds will sneak in under the cover of darkness.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.