Return of redwings a sure sign of spring
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 13, 2013
Red-winged blackbirds normally don’t winter over in Jackson Hole or adjacent areas of the Rockies. In Wyoming some redwings do, east of the Divide, but most go south to winter. As one result, local bird-watchers and nature admirers and almost everybody else watches for and listens for the first returning redwing every early spring or late winter.
A sign, in early March. A small event; a male red-winged blackbird in breeding plumage and condition, returning to a special place in his memory and announcing his presence. Likely no female around yet, but no matter. Singing: Here I am. If you other two-legged creatures delight in hearing my odd song, be my guest. Enjoy.
Many folks will.
Soon enough, alas, some of the same people now delighted will be tired of the redwing’s song, even find it annoying. But for now, mid-March, a reassuring sound.
Red-winged blackbirds are in a group of birds with conical, sharply pointed bills that includes meadowlarks, blackbirds and orioles. Sexes are usually unlike in plumage. Redwing males are black, with red epaulets — shoulder patches. Often only the yellowish margin is visible. Females are brownish. Redwings are about 7 to 9 inches in length, about the size of a robin. Breeds in marshes and swamps primarily. Gregarious.
In certain winters, red-winged blackbirds give “gregarious” a workout. Some winter roosts in the southeastern states contain a million birds and more. People don’t consider their songs and notes pleasantly musical. (Starlings are perhaps worse.) Jackson Hole locals need not fear massive blackbird or starling winter roosts ... so far.
Red-winged blackbird songs are a liquid gurgling o-ka-lee and give a check note and other vocals. They eat insects, seeds, fruits, small aquatic life forms.
If you should want to observe redwings in season, try the wetlands around the visitor center on North Cache in Jackson. Use any of the three elevated viewing platforms to listen and watch.
Barn owls are another matter. Jackson Hole is not barn owl territory; what few records there are tell of single birds or a single pair. Rather too bad. There would seem to be enough prey.
Like all owls, barn owls are fascinating, superficially mysterious creatures. People have been fascinated by owls for, well, likely forever. People now are studying owls as sentient creatures. Part of the maturing processes for animal behaviorists. Late but no longer a no-no.
Barn owls communicate with each other. Of course. They use a “complex, rule-based series of calls, trills, barks and hoots” (Natalie Angier, New York Times). We may be able to decipher the language one day. Hope we use such knowledge wisely.
One new reported discovery about barn owls simply floors me. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of a clutch of barn owl young, exhibiting the sequence of sizes depicting their hatching in succession, not mutually incubated. Big, a little smaller, smaller, a really small character.
Previous knowledge has instructed that the smaller, weaker chick wouldn’t get fed until all its siblings were. If parent birds didn’t find enough food for everybody, weaker chicks starved. Maybe killed by older young. Raptors, you know.
Now come new breeds of biologists who have found evidence that young barn owls “can be impressively generous toward each other, regularly donating portions of their food to smaller, hungrier siblings.” This is a real show-stopper.
In humans such an act is called altruism. Altruism is rarely shown in nonhumans. In birds of prey?! How provocative. How mind-opening.
As to whatever altruism is shown often enough by humans, that’s for another time in a natural history column.
Field notes: March came in. It’s here. It’ll go out. No sign of a lion so far.
First report of a red-winged blackbird was on March 5. Harvey Collister on the west bank. On March 6, Susan Patla heard her first at the visitor center on North Cache in Jackson.
On Saturday, Tammy Christel, Ruth Ann Petroff and Mark Barron were pleased to be among a troop of more than 20 red crossbills on Upper Cache Creek Drive in Jackson.
Diane Kitchen welcomed a northern flicker to her suet feeder, March 6 on the west bank. Mary Lohuis much enjoyed two common snipes foraging in Fish Creek on Sunday.
Nancy Collister noticed a chipmunk on March 6. A sign of spring. Animals are stirring. So should we all.
© Bert Raynes 2013
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.