Red-winged Blackbirds return in mid-February

Barbara Hootman Columnist

Changes in winter are subtle at best in nature. As days lengthen and temperature becomes more seasonal, changes become more obvious.

Mid-February brings the wisteria cannonading seeds up to 50 feet from brown, velvet soft pods that hang at least a half a foot long. Each seed is round on one side and flat on the other and measures about a half-inch in diameter. The seeds started their annual popping around 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 6 and it lasted until 8 p.m. well past dusk.

The two halves of the wisteria pod are under pressure and the twisting motion of the pod causes them to split and hurl the seeds. Temperature is usually between 42-45 degrees Fahrenheit and about 40 degrees when it stops. The phenomena is result of the right combination of humidity, temperature and maturity of the seeds.

As days continue to lengthen from mid-February to the end of the month, male Red-winged Blackbirds begin to return to local marshes and ponds. These birds live throughout the U.S. They usually winter in southern states in agriculture areas and fatten on grain. The males return to Western North Carolina ponds and lakes to establish territories about two weeks earlier than the females from mid-to-late February.

Establishing a territory takes about two weeks before the females start arriving. The males are black with bright orange wing patches. The females look like oversized sparrows.

Owen Park lakes and area ponds host a healthy population of Red-winged Blackbirds. Listen for the distinct “oak-a-lee” mating call. Only the males make it. Spring isn’t far away when you see or hear the Red-winged Blackbirds.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds do not accompany the males to the breeding grounds, waiting a couple of weeks to insure that weather and food supplies will be ample when they do arrive. They spent the winter eating plants and grain. As soon as they arrive on their breeding territories they switch their diets to high protein insects. Females require a lot of bugs to provide protein and calcium necessary to lay eggs.

Males are busy when they arrive sorting out boundaries which are flexible because one male may court and breed with up to 15 different females. He can get so busy that he doesn’t guard his territory as judiciously as he should, allowing other males to invade it. He not only courts numerous females, but also helps feed babies once they arrive in the nests.

When not courting or foraging for food, a male sits on cattails or wires watching for predators and keeping other males out of his territory. When alarmed, he flashes his red shoulder patches as a warning. Red-winged Blackbirds are omnivores eating a lot of plants and bugs in the marshes, and feeding on weed seeds and grain in close by fields.

Fox, bobcats, hawks, owls and crows are the chief predators of Red-winged Blackbirds. However, hundreds of thousands of them are poisoned yearly in agriculture places where they destroy crops. They don’t feed in groups of 15-20 birds in these areas, but in groups of thousands.

They migrate up to a point in groups. At least one bird will see a predator and sound a warning alarm for the whole flock. Hawks have trouble singling out one Red-winged Blackbird from a large flock flying at a fast, tight pace. They move toward breeding grounds during the day, landing in late afternoon to feed and rest overnight. When they arrive on their breeding territories, males spend mornings defending them. Until weather warms enough for insects, they leave in the afternoon to feed in close by fields.

Mid-February is time to make sure existing Bluebird nest boxes are clean. New boxes need to be positioned now. Bachelor Bluebirds scout areas in mid-February looking for future nest sites that might attract females.

It is time also to clean out existing Purple Martin houses and erect new gourds and nest sites. They have already returned to the coast of Texas and Florida and will be back in the Valley by mid-March to breed and nest.

Killdeer, Grackles and Great Blue Herons return by the end of the month. Eastern Screech Owls are courting. Listen for their trills at night.

Flocks of Robins are returning to Valley yards looking for earthworms. They are not the spring migratory birds returning yet, although soon they will be back, and those probing area yards will move north.

Chipmunks will reappear on warm February days.

Wood frogs begin laying eggs, and it is peak season for coyote breeding.

Spring peppers and chorus frogs begin to make their calls as the days lengthen and warm.

Cedar Waxwings are looking for berries.

Keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.