Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are among North America’s most widespread and numerous birds, with breeding populations present in all 48 states, as well as Canada. In some locations, these noisy birds are a familiar year-round presence, while in other regions spotting the distinctive scarlet wing patches is a sure sign that spring is on the way.
Keep reading to learn more about where to see Red-winged blackbirds at any particular time of the year.
In fall, large flocks of Red-winged blackbirds migrate south to spend winter months in the southern U.S. and Mexico. From February onwards, they begin to return to their spring breeding grounds to claim suitable nesting territories. Populations of Red-winged blackbirds that breed in central and southern states do not migrate, instead remaining in their resident territories throughout the winter months.
Read our guide to learn more about these feisty birds’ annual journeys to survive the winter, and the unique individual migratory habits displayed by male and female Red-winged blackbirds.
A perched male red-winged blackbird
Northern populations of Red-winged blackbirds are generally migratory, moving south into the southern United States and Mexico anytime from late August into October. Populations of the birds that are resident in the central and southern states do not migrate, and remain in their home territories all year round.
Red-winged blackbird migration depends on the geographical location of breeding territories, and not all populations will migrate. Those that do are observed to have very specific migratory habits.
Red-winged blackbirds migrate in gender-specific flocks. Migration timing also varies between males and females. For the fall migration, females travel first, up to a month ahead of males; however, on the return migration in spring, males leave around a month ahead of females.
They do not all end up at the same wintering grounds, with females tending to travel longer distances than males.
Female (left) and male (right) red-winged blackbirds - male and females usually travel separately for migration
Migration timing of Red-winged blackbirds is closely tied to the geographical location of their summer breeding grounds. Populations that breed in western Canada are the migration earlybirds, beginning their journeys south any time from late August onwards.
Males and females migrate separately, with females arriving at wintering grounds a month or so ahead of flocks of migrating males. By October most male Red-winged blackbirds resident in the northern regions of the U.S. will also have started their migrations.
Spring migration to breeding grounds typically happens from February onwards, with the latest birds arriving by late May.
Winter migration for the northernmost populations of Red-winged blackbirds becomes necessary when temperatures drop too low to be able to sustain the regular supply of food resources they require during the coldest months.
In spring, the Red-winged blackbirds’ return migration begins to regions with suitable nesting and breeding grounds. Their chosen wetland habitats have a plentiful supply of nest sites and food resources to support them as they raise their young.
Red-winged Blackbird calling from a perch
Male and female Red-winged blackbirds are observed to display different migratory behavior, with females typically flying further than males to find a suitable spot to spend the winter months.
Banded Red-winged blackbirds that breed in the Great Lakes regions of North America have been recorded to have covered the furthest migration distances, flying around 1,200 km (750 mi) to reach their winter destinations.
Red-winged blackbirds departing from the lower Midwest states were observed to have traveled about 1,000 km (620 mi); those originating from breeding grounds in New England migrated around 800 km (500 mi), and birds from Mid-Atlantic states recorded distances of up to 600 km (375 mi).
Females cover longer distances than males, for example females who embark on their migration from the Great Lakes region were found to have traveled nearly 230 km (140 mi) farther than males departing from the same area.
Female Red-winged Blackbird
California and Mexico are popular winter destinations for migratory Red-winged blackbirds traveling from Canada and the northern U.S. Other states that have large visiting populations in winter months include Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
Red-winged blackbirds are capable of sustaining flight speeds of 30 mph (48 k/ph). With overnight breaks, as flight takes place only in daylight hours, even the shortest migrations take Red-winged blackbirds several days, if not weeks, to reach their final destination.
Red-winged Blackbirds can sustain a flight speed of around 30 mph
Migrating Red-winged blackbirds cover substantial distances on the wing between their breeding and wintering grounds. It’s necessary to rest in large overnight roosts to break their journeys into small, more manageable chunks.
Large flocks of Red-winged blackbirds migrate together each fall and return in flocks once the harshest winter conditions are over, ahead of the new nesting and breeding seasons.
A large flock of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds
Not all Red-winged blackbirds migrate, with those resident in the central and southern states of the U.S. spending the whole year in their breeding territory. The further north a Red-winged blackbird breeds, the more likely it is to migrate, and the earlier in the year the migration will begin.
Migratory Red-winged blackbirds from northern breeding grounds head to southern states each winter, for example Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Mexico is also a popular overwintering destination for migratory Red-winged blackbirds.
By December, most migrants have reached their wintering grounds and spend their days feeding on seed and grain, putting on fat ahead of the breeding season ahead and the return journey north.
Red-winged blackbirds resident in breeding grounds located further south in the U.S. remain in their home territories throughout the winter months.
Close up of a posing red-winged blackbird male
In spring, Red-winged blackbirds migrate back to their northern breeding grounds. Males leave before females, so that they arrive first and can stake a claim to a suitable territory in which to attract a mate and raise young.
The nesting period of Red-winged blackbirds draws to a close by July, or early August at the latest. After they have finished raising their broods, both males and females continue to spend time in wetland regions, including sedge meadows, marshes, and alfalfa fields.
Here they form large flocks, and feed together on neutral territory, to gain strength and vital fat reserves ahead of their migration flights.
Males delay migration by up to a month after the females have left, during which time they can double their fat stores.
Migratory Red-winged blackbirds begin their annual journey south from late August onwards, and by October, most will have moved southwards in separate flocks of males and females.
Ahead of their migration flights, Red-winged blackbirds spend time in late summer and early fall feeding intensively in large mixed-species flocks in and around wetland habitats. There, they develop critical fat stores ahead of the winter to sustain them on their journey.
A small flock of red-winged blackbirds roosting at night, Canyon, Texas
Migration of Red-winged blackbirds takes place during daylight hours, with flocks of birds resting overnight.
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