The most common and widespread members of the blackbird clan in Massachusetts are the Red-winged blackbirds. Their voices chorus around nearly every marsh and pond in the state during the spring and summer, and the vivid epaulets of the displaying males make it clear where the bird’s name originated.
Red-winged blackbirds are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, coming in at just below 9” in length. Both sexes have sharp black bills, but their plumages are quite distinct.
Males are solid black with red shoulder patches. The shoulder patches are bordered with a line of yellow at the bottom, and the birds can conceal the shoulder patches when they wish, leaving only the thin line visible. Females resemble large sparrows, but can be recognized as this species by their sharp bills, orange-washed faces, and heavy, regular streaking below.
During spring and summer especially, red-winged blackbirds are quintessential marsh birds. Even small ponds and wet culverts may host a pair or two nesting in the reedy growth. The highly recognizable song of the male is a creaky conk-la-ree!, with the third note the highest.
Where habitat is good, many birds may nest in close proximity, and one male may mate with several females. In fall, like most blackbirds, red-wings gather into large flocks and forage for grain and insects across open areas. Few red-winged blackbirds remain with us in the Bay State all winter long, though those that do may survive mild seasons in the southeastern part of the state.
Although they remain common and widespread as breeders in Massachusetts, there is evidence that red-winged blackbirds may be undergoing a decline in numbers. Interestingly, winter sightings of this species appear to be on the increase. Learn more in our Breeding Bird Atlas 2