Male Red-winged blackbirds are easy to identify, with their flame-colored shoulder patches, standing out against their glossy black bodies. Females are less distinctive, and may initially be mistaken for sparrows or other similar brown-feathered birds. With our guide to female Red-winged blackbirds, you will soon become an expert in identifying the hard-working partners of one of America’s most recognizable – and most aggressive – songbirds.
Female Red-winged blackbirds are not actually black, and any red they have on their wings is rather muted in comparison to the males of the species. Their streaky dark brown plumage allows them to remain well hidden in vegetation, where they construct their nests and incubate their eggs.
Red-winged blackbirds have a reputation as being highly aggressive, territorial birds and are well known for their trademark mobbing of any bird or animal that approaches their nest. While males are famous for their vocal and colorful displays to show off their dominance, we explore whether females are equally feisty and quick to defend their home turf.
We look further into the differences in behavior, appearance, and nesting responsibilities between the sexes in our guide to female Red-winged blackbirds.
Close up portrait of a female Red-winged blackbird
When you think of a Red-winged blackbird, the sleek, jet-black, robin-sized bird, with scarlet and yellow shoulder flashes may be what instantly comes to mind. However, only the males of the species have this distinctive plumage and females are considerably different in appearance.
Female Red-Winged Blackbird
Male Red-Winged Blackbird
In comparison to their striking black-and-red male mates, female Red-winged blackbirds are somewhat non-descript and unremarkable. Male and female Red-winged blackbirds share the same stocky stature, but here the similarities end.
Female Red-winged blackbirds have dark brown upper parts, streaked with paler markings. They have lighter brown streaky underparts, and a whitish-gray eye stripe. Their bills are sharp, wide, and dark gray. Females have dusky brown legs in contrast to the black legs of male Red-winged blackbirds, and both males and females have dark brown irises.
Older females have some pinkish markings on their throats, cheeks and chins. Younger females have small shoulder epaulets that range from gold to light pink; these patches turn a richer, darker red in older birds.
Close up of a perched female Red-winged Blackbird
Female Red-winged blackbirds do not have the same degree of bright orange-red shoulder epaulets seen on male birds, but do have smaller, similar-colored patches on their upper wings that help to identify the species.
A young female Red-winged blackbird’s epaulets are colored from gold to a pale salmon pink shade. With age, this darkens to patches of deep crimson.
Female Red-winged blackbirds are known as hens, while males are called cocks.
Female Red-winged blackbirds are slightly smaller than the males of the species, measuring 17 to 18 cm (6.7 to 7.1 in) in length compared to 22 to 24 cm (8.7 to 9.4 in) for a male.
There is also a slight difference in average and maximum weight between males and females, with females weighing in at 29 to 41.5 g (1.0 to 1.46 oz), while males on average weigh around 64 g (2.3 oz) to as much as 82 g (2.9 oz).
Female (left) and male (right) Red-winged Blackbirds, perched on a branch
Both male and female Red-winged blackbirds have a reputation as being highly aggressive, territorial birds, using a dive-bombing technique to defend against potential threats and predators.
Males have the ability to display their shoulder patches with more prominence in situations in which they feel threatened. Females, although lacking the plumage to ward off threats, have the potential to show severe aggression and harassing behavior, particularly towards other female birds during nesting season.
Female Red-winged blackbirds do generally tend to keep a lower profile than males, remaining camouflaged in vegetation while they construct nests. Males perch higher on reeds and vegetation stalks, and are more visible and vocal than females.
Male Red-winged blackbirds have a wide repertoire of distinctive and familiar calls. Although not as extensive as that of the males, female Red-winged blackbirds do have a range of unique vocalizations.
The female Red-winged blackbird is known for her fast scolding “chatter” call, while both males and females most common call is the noisy “check” calls, used as communication or contact calls.
A perched female red-winged blackbird
Female Red-winged blackbirds breed for the first time at around 2 years of age, while for males, it is not uncommon for the first successful breeding to take place at three or even four years of age.
Red-winged blackbirds are polygynous, with males claiming breeding rights to around 5 females, and occasionally having up to 15 mates in one single territory.
Female Red-winged blackbirds select the nest site with some minor input from the male. Males may help to collect nesting materials, but the bulk of the gathering is done by the female, who proceeds to construct the intricately weaved nest alone.
Incubation of eggs, and brooding of newly hatched nestlings is undertaken solely by the female Red-winged blackbird, rather than being a shared duty. However, the female relies on the male to noisily alert her to the presence of predators and threats while nesting.
Once the chicks have hatched, both parents share feeding duties and once the hatchlings fledge, both males and females initially support the juvenile birds as they become more independent.
Female Red-winged Blackbird with a grub worm for her chicks
Once juvenile Red-winged blackbirds have become fully independent, they accompany adult females to overnight roosts, separate from the adult male birds. Later in the fall, ahead of migration, roosts become mixed.
While both male and female Red-winged blackbirds migrate in large numbers each fall and spring, they have different schedules and habits when it comes to their annual journeys. Females leave ahead of males in the fall to travel to their wintering grounds, and tend to cover longer migration distances.
On the return trip to breeding grounds in the spring, males depart a month ahead of females, and seek suitable territories in which to woo a mate and establish a nesting site.
A flock of migrating Red-winged blackbirds, mainly consisting of females
Although incubation and brooding is solely the job of a female Red-winged blackbird, the male plays an integral part in protecting the nest from predators and alerting the female of any threats.
Both birds share feeding duties of nestlings and continue to care together for birds on the ground after fledging, both initially on their home territory and then further afield for a further 3 weeks.
In rare circumstances where either bird dies or does not return to the nest, the other bird will be able to raise the brood alone, although cases like this are unusual.
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