I was probably nine or ten years old when it happened. I was finally old enough to be allowed to ride my bike into Story City from our acreage south of town. I was riding home along the road on the south edge of town when I was blind-sided; attacked from behind by an unknown assailant. I felt a sharp jab between my shoulder blades. It scared me and I might even have cried a little (but boys big enough to ride a bike to town don’t cry much). I gathered my wits quickly and turned to see who (or what) had attacked me. At first I saw nothing, but then I looked up and caught my attacker several feet above my head and poised to hit me again. He apparently had second thoughts about taking on an opponent face to face and backed off. That was my first experience with how defensive a red-winged blackbird can be when it thinks an intruder is threatening its nest or young. It matters nothing at all to a male red-wing if the intruder is large or small, or whether the threat is real or imagined. All that matters is if he thinks it’s a threat.
Over the years since I was attacked, I have seen red-winged blackbirds attack opponents as varied as red-tailed hawks, which probably aren’t much of a threat to a blackbird; turkey vultures, which are no threat at all since they don’t kill live prey; kestrels, which may pose a threat to blackbird fledglings; crows, which eat eggs and young; stray cats which are a threat to any small bird, dogs — and me. The method of attack is almost always the same, too. Come in from high and behind where the intruder can’t see and hit ‘em in a spot where they can’t hit back. They actually strike the backs of larger birds, pecking and even pulling feathers. Some blackbird attacks are solo affairs, and at other times they involve a whole squadron of attacking red-wings. I have never seen a counter attack against a red-wing, but I suppose it occasionally happens. Victims of a red-wing attack are usually too busy taking evasive action to mount a counter-attack.
The red-wing is part of a large family of birds, the Icteridae, that includes other blackbirds, bobolinks, cowbirds, orioles and even meadow larks. Almost everyone would recognize a male red-winged blackbird with his shiny black body and bright red shoulders that he flares up to make them even more visible in breeding season. The smaller female would pass for a large, dark brown, heavily streaked sparrow. She blends in and is not seen as often as her mate. I doubt that there’s a mile of rural road through open country in Iowa that doesn’t have at least one pair of red-wings nesting in tall ditch vegetation. There are usually more, and maybe lots more if a wetland is nearby. They really like being near wetlands, but seem to thrive in a wide variety of habitats. They eat weed seeds, grain and bugs. They readily come to bird feeders for sunflower seeds. Their flexibility (and maybe their fearlessness) allows them to nest from coast to coast, and from Mexico to southern Alaska. Most of the Icteridae family are more specialized in their habitat and/or food needs. They are, therefore, more restricted in their ranges and usually less numerous. Red-winged blackbirds may be so common that they’re hardly noticed, but they’re worth watching if for no other reason than that they might slip up behind and whack you if you get too close!
Here’s a closing thought for the week. I never realized that I had so much in common with deer. I like sugar snap peas and so do they, including those growing in my garden. I like New England asters, columbine, great blue lobelias and several other kinds of flowers growing around my yard. It appears that deer like them, as well. I suspect that they probably like some other things that I like, too. Deer haven’t been a problem in my yard before. Green things to eat are everywhere, but it appears that deer now think my yard is a trendy salad buffet. It will be interesting to see if they leave me any peas, or any blooms for what few butterflies are left.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.