A juvenile red-winged blackbird sighting may pose a bit of a conundrum, as initially, these young birds are neither black nor do they have red wing patches.
While they wait for their mature plumage to appear, young birds are streaky dark brown, with yellowish tinges, with males and females initially being indistinguishable in color but female juveniles being slightly smaller than males.
Our guide discusses various aspects of the early life of red-winged blackbirds, including what they eat and how long they remain with their parents. If you’re interested in finding the answers to these questions and more, you’re in the right place!
Juvenile red-winged blackbirds are similar in appearance to adult females of the species: streaked dark brown plumage edged with a lighter buff-brown. Young birds have pale yellow-tinged eyebrow and cheek stripes, chin, and throat feathers.
Their underparts are a paler shade of buff-yellow with narrow dusky brownish-gray streaks, and mottled plumage on their backs and wings.
While in juvenile plumage, shoulder epaulets are initially not clearly defined, but gradually develop as they transition into their full adult plumage. Sexes are alike in juvenile plumage although males are slightly larger than females.
Close up of a perched juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
Contrary to their name, juvenile red-winged blackbirds are not really black and do not have red wings. The temporary plumage of young birds is similar to that of adult females, and both male and female juveniles are initially mottled with dark and light brown stripes, yellowish-orange facial markings and light orange-buff patches on the wings.
Unlike many other songbird species, the transition into adulthood is quite a lengthy process and juvenile birds can still be identified into their second year.
Although by the time they enter their first winter, males now have a blacker set of feathers, the glossy appearance of a breeding adult male is not present until the bird establishes its first breeding territory, usually at between two and three years of age.
Young juvenile Red-winged Blackbird begging for food
Juvenile red-winged blackbirds weigh on average 2.75 g (0.1 oz) at the time of hatching. Growth is rapid leading up to fledging, which happens between 11 and 14 days after hatching, with birds weighing around 54 percent of their adult mass (67 percent for females).
Males are slightly larger than female juveniles, a trend that continues in adults of the species, where females are around 75 percent the size of males.
Juvenile Red-winged Blackbird bathing
In the early stages of life, insects and spiders form the largest share of the diet of young red-winged blackbirds. Both parents usually take an active role in feeding the newly hatched chicks, although in some locations only the female takes on the task.
Morning feeds consist mainly of aquatic insects, including damselflies, later in the day, terrestrial insects, especially butterflies and moths, are brought to the nest and fed to the young.
Once fledglings leave the nests, juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds are fed by their parents for around two weeks are leaving the nest, and then up to another three weeks off the territory.
Female Red-winged Blackbird feeding young chick
During their first fall and winter, red-winged blackbirds undergo a molt into what is known as their immature plumage. At this stage, it becomes visibly clearer which birds are males and which are females.
Immature males transition into a plumage that is blacker than before, although continues to be mottled with lighter feathers and may look tinged with green. Shoulder patches are beginning to emerge and can display in a range of forms, especially speckled orange with a paler yellow stripe, while in other birds it already shows as a brilliant red.
Immature females are also darker in color than their initial juvenile plumage. Mottling with paler feathers is present across their bodies, with beige streaking to their chests and flanks. The female’s reddish flank patches do not develop until the following year, as they develop their second winter plumage the following year.
As immature red-winged blackbirds reach breeding age, males in particular continue to be fairly easy to distinguish from fully mature birds. Non-breeding males lack the glossy black plumage of breeding adult males, and are similar in coloring, but more subdued. Second-year females now have their crimson wing-patch and have less beige mottling on their chest.
Immature male Red-winged Blackbird molting into adult plumage
Juvenile red-winged blackbirds migrate in their first year, and will accompany females, regardless of their own sex. Female red-winged blackbirds travel to their wintering grounds several weeks ahead of males, which follow later once they have had a chance to forage intensely and put on fat needed to see them through the winter months.
Before their initial migration flight – between 45 and 60 days of leaving the nest – juveniles undergo a prebasic molt, replacing their initial feathers with a stronger set capable of longer-distance flights.
Typical flight distances covered by migrating red-winged blackbirds range from 600 km (375 mi) for birds that are resident in the Mid-Atlantic states, to up to 1,200 km (750 mi) for birds that are migrating from the Great Lakes region.
Perched juvenile Red-winged Blackbird
After fledging, juvenile red-winged blackbirds continue to be supported by their parents, or at least the mother until they are able to forage and survive independently. This can be up to four or five weeks in some cases.
Once they have become fully independent, juveniles accompany adult females to foraging grounds and overnight roosting spots, in separate flocks to male birds. Roosts flocks become mixed later in the fall, ahead of migration.
Recently fledged Red-winged Blackbird chick (right) begging for food from its mother
One particularly unique skill of a juvenile red-winged blackbird that is not shared with adult birds is their ability to swim short distances. While adult birds are unable to swim at all, young birds can actually swim before they can fly.
This survival adaptation is particularly useful as nest sites are commonly located near water, and accidental nest falls that occur do not necessarily need to end in disaster if a bird can potentially survive an unexpected fall.
A pair of juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds together in a tree
Female tricolored blackbirds share some features with juvenile red-winged blackbirds and the two species may be confused from a distance. However, tricolored blackbirds are less streaked than juvenile red-winged blackbirds and are more charcoal gray than dark brown.
Another species that may be confused with a juvenile red-wing, at least from a quick glance from some distance away, is the song sparrow.
Song sparrows have similar brownish, streaked markings, but up close the difference is more obvious, with the sparrows being smaller in size, lighter in color, and have a different shaped bill.
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